Sweeney Todd at the Rondo, Bath

Merriman Sweeney-5413WE were invited to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, in the intimate surroundings of Bath’s Rondo Theatre, by Merriman Productions, a Midsomer Norton based company, who rose to the challenge Stephen Sondheim’s musical presents with considerable assurance.

The largely youthful cast was headed by William Stevens who gave a truly spine-tingling performance in the title role. Blessed with a wonderfully rich singing voice, his interpretation of the role was as good as I have seen anywhere. As Mrs. Lovett, Petra Schofield gave an equally commanding performance; her sense of comic timing was an absolute joy and the scenes where the two of them were together – A Little Priest, for example – were among the highlights of the show.

Merriman Sweeney-7576In the supporting roles, Kate Salt as the Beggar Woman was also superb. Observing the action onstage almost throughout, her attention never faltered and beneath her crude exterior one gradually came to sense a truly pitiful soul. The younger members of the company were double cast, Thursday’s performance featuring Emily Stenner as Johanna, Owen Stephens as Anthony and Morgan Perry as Tobias Ragg. All were pretty well note perfect, no mean accomplishment when it comes to a show of this nature, and clearly relished the challenge of performing such an ambitious and demanding work. The intricate weaving of the voices in “Kiss Me” was particularly well executed, although I personally might have considered transposing one or two of the songs so that they sat rather more comfortably within the vocal range of the young singers. Other named roles were played by Mike Davies as Judge Turpin, Grant McCotter as a wonderfully theatrical Pirelli and Andi Ford as Beadle Bamford. (His scene at the harmonium with Mrs. Lovett was an absolute joy.)

There were some fine voices, too, in the young choral ensemble who delivered Sondheim’s harmonies with an almost scary intensity, the expressions on some of the faces revealing just how involved they all were.

Despite all the above, what the show lacked, I feel, was an overall sense of the dramatic. As both director and musical director, Graeme Savage had, I suspect, concentrated on the music and in so doing allowed the sheer theatricality of the work to slip. Some of the more experienced members of the company were clearly able to compensate for this, but for the younger players at least, a stronger sense of direction was needed. Work on characterisation, the building of dramatic tension, how to bring out humour or tenderness, or develop the potential for the macabre were all needed. Sweeney Todd is a difficult show and it needed a second pair of eyes in this respect.

Merriman Sweeney-5000From the design point of view too, although the minimalist nature of the production enabled the audience to concentrate on the music and the all-important words (Sondheim actually considers himself to be first and foremost a wordsmith) greater attention needed to be paid to the staging and visual impact generally. Although the expertly played two-piano accompaniment enabled most of the words to come through, several scenes, where maybe the actors themselves had quieter voices, were played too far back too be clearly audible. I am also sure that far more could have been made of the gruesome nature of throat slitting and that a few well chosen props could have worked wonders.

The play is in performance until Saturday 13th September.



Photographs by Charlie Matters


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