The name, like that of the New Ambassadors in the West End, is a touch of hype: it has been refurbished, but the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is in exactly the same building as the previous incarnation which went dark a couple of years ago. The theatre's new management mark its reopening with a production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (later to be seen in York and Colchester) which is efficient as a show but – no little feat, given the subject matter – steers clear of the darker depths of the material.
The demon barber of Fleet Street is described in song as having a "manner mild:/He seldom laughed but he often smiled", but on the few occasions when Paul Leonard stops glowering to smile, it is followed by a "Sir Jasper" cackle. Director Peter Rowe and designer Ellen Cairns (whose set extends the galleries and columns of the Wolsey's space) have opted for a Victorian-melodrama feel, which fits the genre of the story itself but not of this musical version of it. This, after all, is the show in which Sondheim's subversion of big-romantic-number conventions reached its first zenith with "These Are My Friends", a rhapsody sung by Sweeney on being reunited with his favourite cut-throat razors. It isn't morally or emotionally an easy canter.
The central duo of Sweeney and Mrs Lovett the pie-cook are here nothing but pantomimic: Leonard looks and behaves like Peter Bowles playing King Rat, and Joanna Mays' Mrs Lovett, over-the-top delight though she is, has plainly received full blood transfusions from the entire Carry On team – a touch of the Kenneth Williams voice here, a dollop of Joan Sims battle-axing there... a marvellously energetic bit of work, as I say, but it does Sondheim no favours at all. The darker moments of Rowe's production (especially Simon Clark's Judge Turpin, stripping to his corpulent waist first for rape and later for self-flagellation) are far outweighed by this imagistic simplification at its core.
Robert Irons and Aoibheann Greene are efficient as the young lovers, Matthew Hendrickson does a nice turn as a cod-Italian barber, and Thomas Moss is engaging as Mrs Lovett's young assistant Toby, although like a few of the supporting actors his singing voice is not up to the intricacies of Sondheim's score (rendered here mostly on a couple of synthesizers). Nick Beadle's lighting has moments of such crashing unsubtlety, not quite synchronised with onstage action by the operator on the board, that once or twice I genuinely wondered whether the pre-programmed lighting plot had crashed and LX changes were being improvised. This Sweeney is far from a catastrophe, but it is also some way from realising the range and depth of the show's potency.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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