Sweeney Todd

Chris Bond
cut to the chase...
Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch
(2009)

Production photo

The experience of watching this play is something like the flipside to the story of the trailer for Tim Burton's movie version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in which notoriously all mention of the musical element was missing, giving audiences the impression they'd be seeing a straight film. Here, we cannot help but watch Chris Bond's play waiting for the characters to break into song. It is perhaps unfair to allow the current celebrity of the musical version to determine our retrospective judgement of Bond's straight stage treatment; as the programme makes clear, Bond's play, originally conceived in 1968, both preceded and inspired the musical. But this fact really does Bond no favours, his work now being so overshadowed by the far greater wit, satirical bite and lyrical virtuosity of Sondheim's piece. What we're left with is a swollen Victorian melodrama which, in its overblown style, comes across as a musical with everything but the music.

Bond makes no bones about the fact that he intended to be true to the original style of Victorian stage melodramas. But to do so with no self-consciousness or attempt to comment on the form from the perspective of the present day, seems such a wasted opportunity. Instead we get a heartfelt commitment to good old-fashioned grand guignol. In the tale of Sweeney Todd's murderous return to London after his unjust transportation fifteen years earlier by a corrupt judge eager to get his hands on Todd's beautiful wife, boy, does the blood flow liberally! Shaun Hennessy as the central character has an unrelenting declamatory style, as Todd sets about plotting the murder of the Judge and Beadle who wronged him, as well as that of quite a few innocent patrons of his barber shop, just to slake his bloodthirsty appetite. And as we all know, his victims slide straight down to the basement of Mrs Lovett's pie shop below, where she lovingly grinds them into meat for her produce.

The over-baked (pun intended) tone of the entire action is of course intended to be entertaining, and to dissuade us from taking the goings-on at all seriously. But the result is that we find ourselves tittering at each and every development in gruesomeness, and hanging all our enjoyment of the play on the next momentary visceral thrill. The blood does indeed spurt impressively from the necks of Todd's victims. But when we are laughing at Mrs Lovett's adopted servant-boy Tobias finding a fingernail in his meat pie; then later, driven insane, actually munching on a severed hand; or elsewhere the simulated on-stage rape of Todd's wife - this is a bit discomforting.

Todd's daughter Johanna has been adopted by the evil Judge Turpin, who in a worrying fashion has watched her from childhood waiting for the day when she is old enough to become his bride. But again Johanna's fate never moves us greatly, as Lucy Thackeray plays her in such a shouting-to-the-back-of-the-balcony manner. Northern Stage's The Bloody Chamber, for instance, gave us a much more interesting exploration of the unspoken dynamic and complicated chemistry between an older man and a young virginal woman. Here, little is done either with the fact that the judge is a guilt-ridden self-flagellator, as it does nothing to curb his atrocious treatment of Johanna, and indeed is never mentioned again after the scene in which he lashes his own back, providing more blood-letting for our appetites.

cut to the chase are a company of specialised actor-musicians: in this case, having live piano and violin accompaniment to virtually all of the action does add an extra something. Carol Sloman's violin playing is not so much music as an extended sound effect - becoming the wind whistling through the dank streets of London, or the creaking of a casket opening; or signalling the rising hysteria of the action. It's a fine effect, but lacking subtlety or variation, meaning that by the second half the constant squalls of sound have somewhat lost their effect on us.

Mark Walters' theme park-like set of jumbled, false-brickwork fibreglass facades is technically impressive, but again an obstacle to us believing in the world we are seeing. The Watermill Theatre's production of Sondheim's Todd a few years ago showed that this gruesome tale can work wonderfully in a chamber setting; it is a closeness and an intimacy, confronting us with the claustrophic nature of the horror, that is missing here. You long for some flicker of guilt, doubt or self-examination to cross Sweeney's face; something more than simple capering and pantomime lust from Diana Croft's Mrs Lovett; something, basically, to justify the bloodbath.

Until 28th March

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury