Stephen Sondheim has a dark side. Some of his lyrics in West Side Story have a bleak, nihilistic edge, partly camouflaged by Bernstein's vivace score. In Sweeney Todd, he explores the dark side of humanity - he washes us all in blood.
Imelda Staunton famously called Sondheim "the Shakespeare of musicals," and Sondheim owes much to the Bard. West Side Story is of course based upon the feuding Capulet and Montague clans of Romeo and Juliet. Sweeney Todd meanwhile has a direct blood lineage to Titus Andronicus. Like Titus, it is a revenge play and, in both, vengeance is against the perpetrator of a rape. In each, blood is splashed around liberally by brutalised characters. In both plays, the perpetrators end up in pies.
Sweeney Todd is thankfully a fictional character, who bloodily burst into the public zeitgeist in the mid nineteenth century. Since then, he has joined the demonic pantheon of popular horror figures. He is the proletarian counterpart to the very real Jack the Ripper, whose actions in 1888 resonated with the demonic barber's. From a social historical point of view, the Todd urban legend is interesting, as it plays on Victorian anxieties about food safety, murder and lack of regulation. Dickens raised these concerns in Pickwick Papers, where Sam Weller advises to buy pies only from women they know made them.
The show was first produced on Broadway in 1979, with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett, and directed by Hal Prince. The writer and director had different visions of the play. Whereas Sondheim saw this as a timeless revenge tragedy a la Shakespeare, Hal Prince was more Dickensian in approach, seeing it as a vision of brutal society churning out "soulless, defeated, hopeless people." These two readings are not mutually exclusive, and in performance the play achieves both visions, resulting in an exciting, horrifying but dispiriting spectacle.
This production by D2E Youth Drama achieved this collision of Shakespearean revenge tragedy and Dickensian social commentary brilliantly. As soon as you entered the theatre, a dark mood descended. Behind a gossamer curtain the whole cast were assembled with their backs to the audience, all silently engaged in a slow-motion slashing motion. This went on for ten minutes, after which the usual audience chatter and laughter had died to an uneasy, expectant silence.
Suddenly, the curtain rose and the whole cast turned grimly towards the audience to give a disturbingly aggressive ensemble of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. From then on, the audience were immersed in a brutal Victorian Fleet Street, populated by grotesque, pitiful characters. The stage was organised well, with a raised platform for a room above Mrs Lovett's pie shop - this became the focus for much of the action, and the gloriously grisly killings.
The energetic and enthusiastic cast kept the production pacey, lively and entertaining. For a young group of actors, taking on Sondheim is challenging. The score and melody lines are complex and often contrapuntal, with precise phrasing and stressing needed. The singers all managed their parts with confidence, and produced a musical of the highest quality.
The standout performance was that of Milly Parker as Mrs Lovett. Her vocals were superb as she beamed a seedy charisma throughout, and engaged the audience with a complicit warmth. The audience rightly loved her. It was a pleasure to witness such talent.
Todd was played well by Morgan Blakeman-Evans, who injected flashes of distorted humanity into the role of brutal butcher. There was a sick chemistry between Todd and Mrs Lovett, and the actors worked well together to achieve this, with Milly Parker bustling and scheming around the hate-filled portrayal by Morgan Blakeman-Evans. The two took on much of the singing, and they both deserve enormous credit for carrying it off so well.
The only ray of sunshine in the plot was the tryst between Anthony Hope and Joanna. Lewis Fitt played the romantic lead well, with some strong vocal performances. Ella Brookes' voice was wonderful - her clear soprano injecting a startling purity into the mire of sleaze and violence.
The corrupt Judge Turpin was played well by Joseph Zalas, who brought an unhealthy disdain and arrogance to the role. Sam Smith played his henchman, the Beadle, with a confident simmering brutality. Meanwhile, Kayleigh Hunt as the Beggar Woman (Todd's wife), alternated disturbingly between persistent pleading, and saucy wantonness. Kacey Hall, meanwhile, played the innocent turned murderer Tobias Ragg with open-eyed menace.
Some much-needed comic relief was provided by Corey Hall as the fraudulent Italian barber Pirelli, who entertainingly played up the conman to great effect. The switch from Italian to Irish, as he dropped his mask, was well done. The audience loved him.
Jonas Fogg, the doctor of the asylum was played with effortless menace by George Neal, whose eyes darted ominously and threateningly to his terrified patients.
The above actors put on a fantastic show, and carried off challenging roles with great panache and enthusiasm. The rest of cast, who provided chorus and dancing were also terrific, providing an electric vitality to proceedings, approaching the audience en masse with seething menace.
Jade Goswell and Elaine Bishop deserve great credit for the production and direction of this musical. They did not play it safe, and stretched these talented young actors to embrace Sondheim's dark vision.
At the end of the blood and cruelty the lights went out on Fleet Street, and the audience jumped to their feet in a long and loud ovation. As I stood and clapped, I felt a real admiration for the hard work this talented cast had obviously put into this, and the enthusiasm they injected into achieving Sondheim's dark vision. I was relieved to have survived this episode in Fleet Street, and left the theatre thinking how we need these visions of darkness to appreciate the light and the good in people.
Later on that evening, I started thinking about pies - murder wrapped in pastry; darkness concealed in a thin civilised coating. From the Globe Theatre to Broadway, and now to Grantham .. this is a lesson for us all. Thank you D2E Youth Drama for putting on such an entertaining and challenging show.