Sweeney Todd

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed and Designed by John Doyle for the Watermill Theatre, Newbury
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring

Poster image

This is a musical I had avoided for some considerable time. Throat slitting, flesh eating and buckets of blood don’t usually appeal – but, having overcome the initial aversion, I find it just as exciting and thrilling third time around, and of course Sondheim’s music and lyrics are exceptional – although they must be a great challenge to the performers.

The biggest challenge has to be for Jason Donovan in the title role. Having grown up from his teen idol days in the Australian soap, Neighbours, and his long period playing Joseph with his coat of many colours, he has put his drug-taking days behind him and this is a very different venture. All eyes are on him to see if he can cope, and I’m happy to say that he can! Initially his voice was rather overpowered by the music, and it is very necessary to hear all the lyrics as this is a ‘sung through’ musical (or is it opera?) and therein lies the story, but this was only a momentary fault and he gained in strength as the show progressed. Being exceptionally critical I thought at first that his character lacked menace, but when he had his enemy, the judge, in the barber’s chair and was savouring the moment of his revenge, he stroked and almost caressed the face and throat of his victim in anticipation of his demise and had the audience and I holding our collective breaths waiting for the razor to strike. His rage and frustration when thwarted was breathtakingly terrifying.

The story is based on truth – the tale of 18th Century barber/surgeon Sweeney Todd who killed and robbed his victims, choosing those who would not be missed, and used their flesh to ‘improve’ the meat pies of his accomplice Mrs. Lovett. His premises were next to St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street, and the forgotten vaults and tunnels were the ideal place to dispose of the bones and inedible remains - until, that is, the congregation of St. Dunstan’s eventually complained of the stench and the matter was investigated, Todd being tried, convicted and executed, still professing his innocence!

In Wheeler’s story Todd has returned to England from Australia, where he was imprisoned on a false charge invented by the Judge (Oliver Beamish) who then evicted Todd’s wife and abducted his beautiful daughter, hence the reason for revenge, but in his frenzy to extract vengeance Todd ends up tragically killing the one he loved most. Revenge is a dish best served cold!

Harriet Thorpe’s Mrs. Lovett is nothing short of perfection. Her character is working class, down to earth, speaks her thoughts in a matter of fact manner and has a keen ear for a comic line or two – and Thorpe also has a magnificent singing voice. It is she in the story who suggests that it is a pity to waste the good plump flesh of Todd’s victims. “Think of it as thrift, a gift – if you get my drift” as she aims to supply “the best pies in London”.

John Doyle has been instrumental (appropriate word) in the development of actor/musicianship – most of his work originating at the wonderful little Watermill Theatre at Newbury – and, although I have mentioned some by name, this is really an ensemble piece with his excellent company playing their various instruments throughout the performance, every artist excelling in their role.

I experienced the feeling of ‘blood running cold’ several times in this production. As each murder is committed an ear-splitting shriek fills the theatre and blood is poured from bucket to bucket as the whole stage is enveloped in a blood red light, but also there is plenty of laughter, mostly supplied from the matter-of-fact Mrs. Lovett.

For thrills, spills (of blood) laughter and excitement this is one stupendous show – but I may not eat a pie for some time!

Touring until the end of April.

This review first appeared in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Philip Fisher reviewed the Broadway version of this production

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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