SWEENEY Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a metaphor for all that is dark and lurks behind closed doors, in streets barely lit with guttering gaslights, for a time when the rich and powerful had almost infinite power over the poor and powerless, when there was no safety net …
Yeovil Amateur Operatic Society staged a memorable Sweeney nearly 20 years ago and this new production brings Sondheim’s masterpiece of Victorian melodrama to a new audience, who may only know it from the Johnny Depp film.
Sweeney is all about one character – all the action swirls bloodily around him – so any production stands or falls on the broad shoulders of Mr Todd. You have to believe in the character, in the depths of despair that have turned a decent ordinary husband and father into a revenging demon.
Edward Creswick, making his YAOS debut, gives a towering performance. From the moment he appears silently on stage, as the crowd sings The Ballad of Sweeney Todd for the first time, your eyes are drawn to him.
Huge stage presence, great charisma and a powerful, deeply musical voice – and he can really act. This man is broken, by the evil actions of Judge Turpin and 15 years transportation to Australia, but he is reincarnated as a Fury come straight from hell. The explosions of violent anger are terrifying, but just occasionally there is the merest shadow of the gentler man whose life was destroyed.
Kirstine Champion gives Mrs Lovett her all – she is scheming, quick-witted and calculating. Without her opportunist idea to dispose of the bodies and at the same time improve her pie business, Sweeney Todd’s vengeance could not have been fulfilled. The two villains have a real chemistry which almost puts the audience on their side (and let’s face it, Judge Turpin deserves his fate!)
Sarah Middleditch is a charming Johanna, Todd/Barker’s daughter, and she has a lovely voice. Within the constraints of an underwritten character (Sondheim threw everything at his two central figures and the other roles are Victorian stereotypes) she gives a spirited performance as the trapped teenager.
Tom Creswick, also making his YAOS debut, has a big voice for such a young man, and brings youthful passion and energy to the young sailor Anthony, who falls in love with Johanna at first sight.
The thanklessly horrid role of Judge Turpin falls to the experienced Duncan Wright – the man is such a pantomime monster that you can only shudder with Johanna at the thought of him touching her.
Steve Harland-Brassington has huge fun as the Beadle, a toady who creeps to the judge, but enjoys every moment of his threatening official power. He is hilarious – nasty, but in this show you need the laughs.
Zack Welfare plays the “Italian” barber with panache – but he could do with a bit of padding. You are supposed to imagine that Mrs Lovett’s pie inspiration comes from his comfortable girth.
Lewis Ward, a 14 year old Gryphon School pupil and another YAOS debutant, plays Toby, the street kid who finds himself in the tender care of Mrs Lovett. His performance showed real maturity – particularly in the spine-chilling finale.
The most mysterious character is the Beggar Woman, beautifully played by Charmaine Bray. She may be hidden under rags but you sense the importance of this mad creature.
Director Martyn Knight is also a performer, and his wide experience is evident in the way he moves the large crowd scenes, the intensity he draws from the central characters and the steady ratcheting up of tension.
With Lynne Merrifield in the orchestra pit, the show is in the safest musical hands, from the opening chords to the final silence.
Sweeney Todd continues at the Octagon until Saturday 13th October.