MYRA McDadd was already a fan of Stephen Sondheim when she and David Grierson saw an Edinburgh Fringe production of Sweeney Todd in 1995. “I realised that I was totally smitten by this show, with all its dark and dangerous themes,” she writes in her director’s notes to the programme for Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s autumn show.
It has taken 20 years to bring this astonishing masterpiece of music theatre to the Shaftesbury stage – and with David as musical director, and Sondheim expert Caroline D’Cruz as pianist, Myra has a success on her hands and a show that everyone should be proud of.
It’s no light musical comedy. It is a story of lust, cruelty, obsession, revenge, murder and madness. The music is discordant and supremely difficult, the words are brilliant but tongue-tangling. It’s a challenging choice for a big operatic society, and a huge risk for a drama group at a small arts centre.
But Myra and David, with an excellent band and a cast which has worked hard to master the demanding score, have pulled it off.
It is dark indeed and daring in its ambition. The notoriously small Shaftesbury Arts Centre stage, which so often looks overcrowded in the annual pantomime, has been reconfigured, with vertiginous steps on both sides and a triple-tiered central set, which at various levels is the street, Pirelli’s flamboyant booth, Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop, Todd’s barber’s saloon, the hellish ovens in the cellar and the lofty bench of the vicious Judge Turpin.
Rob Dorey, who is new to Shaftesbury, takes the title role. Tall, thin, with a fleeting but not inappropriate resemblance to Peter Capaldi, he captures the wired energy and explosive rage of the obsessed Todd.
Nicki Porter is his partner in the murder and pie business, establishing the ambivalent nature of Mrs Lovett, a woman who is not inherently evil or cruel but an opportunist who seizes the chance to lift her life from rank squalor to a spurious domesticity.
Philip Elsworth has the unenviable role of the vile judge and he makes the most of it with a powerful voice and an intimidating stage presence, as this venal hypocrite who hangs children for petty theft and lusts after his beautiful 15-year-old ward.
Charlotte Homer is exactly the right age to play Johanna, and she brings both the innocence of a girl who has been shut away from society and the rebellious hormones of a teenager to the part, a willing accomplice in the rescue plans of love-struck young seaman Anthony Hope (Charles Dillon).
Philip White was touching and poignant as the orphan Toby, put-upon and bullied by the vain Pirelli, adopting Mrs Lovett as the mother he never had, but not as stupid as the adults around him think.
Ruth McKibbin brought a splendid soprano in the unusual casting of a woman as the Italian barber Pirelli, Hugo Purdue revealed a lovely singing voice beneath the Beadle’s bullying bluster and Helen Ryder was the anguished beggar woman.
When you think about it, Sweeney Todd is a terrible story, yet there is a sort of grandeur bordering on tragedy in the bitter morality that drives Sweeney to take his monstrous revenge.
Congratulations to all in the company for a powerful production, to stage manager Andy Hoskins and his team and designer Kim Pragnell for the effective and atmospheric set and to director Myra McDadd for her vision and persistence in bringing Sweeney Todd to Shaftesbury. It continues until Saturday 24th October, on various nights.