"Deliciously wicked and vibrantly fresh"
by Ed Barrett for remotegoat on 17/04/19

There is a poetic aptness about Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd finding itself back on the Everyman stage, given the 1969 play on which it is based was penned by Chris Bond (Everyman Artistic Director in the mid 1970s). It’s deserved renown is such that a potted plot summary may be largely redundant, and I’m envious of anyone for whom seeing this production will be their first taste of the wonderfully wicked story. Suffice to say that ‘demon barber’ Todd’s skill with a razor blade provides the perfect solution for Mrs Lovett’s lack of palatable ingredients for the pies she purveys.

Interestingly for a musical named for the lead character, most of the big show-stopping numbers are allocated elsewhere – in some ways a shame, as Liam Tobin brings the same absolute honesty to his singing as he does his acting. Dramatically, though, Sondheim’s decision of course works perfectly, allowing Tobin to show Todd’s descent from a man perhaps understandably seeking old-testament-style justice for historic wrongs, into someone who has effectively lost his soul, in glorious Technicolor..

Kacey Ainsworth is his perfect foil as Mrs Lovett the pie-shop owner, inhabiting the character to the tips of her fingers, and getting to have a lot of fun (as indeed do we) with some of the more upbeat songs. At the same time, she portrays a woman with such a core of steel that you believe every raised fist might actually result in someone getting their lights punched out. Whilst I am well aware of her screen presence, seeing her on stage for the first time is nothing short of a revelation.

Individually excellent, together Tobin and Ainsworth are pretty much unbeatable, and a pairing I’d watch again – and again – and again, in this, or any other production. If no-one casts them as Mr and Mrs Macbeth, for example, they’re missing a trick; though I suspect they’d be equally at home as the partners in pretty much any great on-stage pairing you can think of.

Every bit as worthy of celebration is Nick Bagnall’s direction. If I say there is something of the rehearsal room about this Sweeny Todd, I mean it as the highest praise: there is a real sense of things coming into existence for the very first time, right in front of our eyes; a quality that is rare even amongst the most polished productions. The heights he hit with The Big I Am, for example, may be exceeded here, as unlikely as that may seem.

I’m relatively agnostic about period pieces being played in modern dress, as I am about theatre in the round and the use of revolves; not because these things don’t have their place, but because I see them used badly at least as often as used well. No such fears here. Instead, they add to the immediacy of the production, emphasising the gothic grandeur of a musical so perfectly crafted it is virtually architectural, whilst at the same time perfectly laying bare it’s all-too-human soul.

Whilst I am sure there have been, and will be, productions of this piece in which some of the singing is closer to technical perfection, I’d take this production over any of those every time, for the same reasons I prefer Dame Judy Dench’s rendition of Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns to anyone else’s. Vocal dexterity alone is simply no match for the dramatic power, emotional depth and complexity of character an incredible ensemble brings to these songs, and these roles.

That’s not to say there’s anything lacking in the musicality, with the cast supported by a small band of musicians who punch way above their weight, expertly lead by Musical Director Tarek Merchant.

Paul Duckworth is on as fine vocal form as he is in his stage presence as the villainous Judge Turpin, whilst as his victim (and Todd’s daughter) Joanna, Keziah Joseph illuminates a character torn between hope and despair wonderfully, with the voice of a caged song-bird that would surely steal the show entirely in a production even only slightly weaker.

As Joanna’s love-interest Anthony, Bryan Parry makes the apparently thankless task of playing an essentially flawless good-guy compellingly believable. With drama as darkly delicious as this, it’s great to have a pair of characters you genuinely root for without it being a guilty pleasure, especially when, in a production this strong, it might have been tempting to settle for performances closer to the theatrical equivalent of a palate-cleanser.

Dean Nolan’s brings an almost acrobatic energy to his portrayal of Todd rival Pirelli, though he is a far, far more powerful presence in his more menacing moments, and far funnier when displaying his true comedic chops. If for me there were just a few too many pratfalls in this performance, it also has to be said that in this audience, that view put me in a minority of precisely one.

Rather than give too much away in terms of plot, let me simply say that Shiv Rabheru brings a truly moving depth and vulnerability to the journey of Pirelli’s sidekick Tobias, whist Emma Dears doesn’t put a foot wrong as the beggar woman Mrs Lovett struggles to get rid of.

A special mention for Mark Rice-Oxley, who as Beadle Bamford not only brings us a policeman so apparently reasonable he perfectly embodies the notion of the banality of evil, but also displays comic timing and musical dexterity fine enough to grace any stage. If I hesitate to make too much of the contemporary resonance he and others bring to twin themes of social injustice and financial inequality, it is only for fear of making the production sound ‘worthy’, when it is above all a delicious match of great drama and fantastic fun.

And another special mention for whoever thought of serving the invited guests such delicious pies. I must ask for the recipe.

Overall, then, this is an ideal production for fans of musical theatre, including those who might consider themselves over-familiar with this particular story, as here it is given such a freshness it feels like it was written yesterday.

Equally, for those who think musicals simply aren’t for them, this might just be the production to change their minds.

Go and experience it while you can.

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