In 1973, while in London for the UK premiere of GYPSY, Stephen Sondheim went to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Christopher Bond's version of the melodrama SWEENEY TODD. Sondheim enjoyed the Grand Guignol atmosphere and how street songs were incorporated into the action but what really excited him was how Bond changed the plot from a penny-dreadful melodrama into a revenge thriller with Sweeney seeking vengeance on Judge Turpin for the death of his wife. An idea was born...
Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF LONDON opened in 1979 in New York and the following year in London and although both productions lost money, it has gone on to be rightly viewed as one of the great Broadway musicals and Sondheim's masterpiece. London has taken the show to it's heart as was Sondheim's original wish - the original production won the Olivier Award for Best Musical and it has since won two further Oliviers for Best Musical Revival.
And now - finally - I have seen it in the theatre where Sondheim first got his inspiration for the show thanks to the Royal Academy of Music's Musical Theatre department who gave a few performances of SWEENEY TODD last week to showcase their final year students. There were a few odd directorial choices and wonky performances but it made me realize that I could happily watch a good production of SWEENEY TODD every day! This was my tenth SWEENEY and there has only been one really bad one - a ghastly am-dram one at the Bloomsbury Theatre in 1992 - which is a very good batting average I reckon.
The show also is a good example of why Sondheim always gives praise to his book writers. Hugh Wheeler's book for SWEENEY TODD is a classic of musical storytelling, there are nine main characters who are all vividly drawn and it not only stands up to repeated viewings but the book always throws up things I had never noticed before.
I always thought the show would be a perfect fit for Stratford East and indeed it was, and Michael Fentiman's production did the trick for me; I found it hugely enjoyable although it did seem to combine elements of John Doyle's 2004 stripped-down production, Jonathan Kent's 2011 Chichester production and Lonny Price's recent concert version.
Opting for the now almost-standard 20th Century setting, this SWEENEY TODD started with grim-faced morticians taking a break from a new cadaver to sing THE TALE OF SWEENEY TODD and of course the cadaver turned out to be Sweeney who rose from the slab to join them at the end of the song.
And we were off on the wonderful runaway train that is SWEENEY TODD... an unstoppable thrill ride to it's shattering conclusion: as I have often said, the final sequence of the show - if done right - should be one of the most relentlessly scary things you can experience, even if you know the show It has an internal motor that if stoked properly gathers pace leaving dead bodies in it's wake and an icy, clammy grip on the back of your neck. Happily the RAM students gave it their all and if it *just* fell short it was due to the odd staging that slightly distanced you from the full action.
You see, Sweeney's mechanical chair was... well, not mechanical. Like the recent concert version, once his victim's throat was cut they promptly stood up, walked down from the raised barbershop and jumped down an opened stage trap-door now the door to Mrs Lovett's ovens. Actually the trap-door was a good idea for the ovens as designers usually struggle with incorporating that into their stage design but the stage traffic is always so busy at the climax of the show that this production's staging at the end just got too convoluted.
The fact that the performers were young was only a hindrance in Lawrence Smith's Sweeney who simply didn't have the heft for the role - he looked more like a pasty street thug than a serial killer. His falling-short was exacerbated by most of his scenes being shared with Elissa Churchill's no-prisoners-taken performance as Nellie Lovett.
Although she looked more like a candidate for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' Audrey, Churchill gave a delightful performance of venal intent - Sweeney was her target from the second he returned to her shop - and although I felt her performance at times seemed too much like a facsimile of Emma Thompson's in the concert version, she still had enough personality to light up the gloomy stage. I hope a successful career beckons...
In a seemingly cross-borders cast I also enjoyed Ruben Van keer's sweet-natured Anthony and Johan Berg's imposing Judge Turpin and there was an intriguing double act in Francisco del Solar's Hispanic Pirelli and Tao Deng's slippery Beadle.
Charlotte Clitherow's Beggar Woman was almost there while Brian Raftery's Tobias and Genevieve McCarthy's Johanna could both have done with more work - maybe simmering down the former and bringing the latter more up to the boil?
But like I said, this was an enjoyable production of one of my favourite musicals and it will be good to keep out an eye to see if the students get the breaks they need.
Now Stratford East.... how's about a proper production?