I never really understood the appeal of musicals until I listened properly to the work of Stephen Sondheim. From him I learned not just that songs can advance the story instead of putting it on pause, but that the story itself can be dark, complex and fascinating instead of romantic fluff. Sweeney Todd (1979) may be Sondheimís masterpiece, and a watershed in the development of the musical form.
The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street, seeking bloody revenge and hiding the bodies of his victims in Mrs Lovettís pies, combines love, sorrow, horror and deliciously black humour. Despite his reputation, Sondheim has had few solid-gold hit shows. This is one. Last year it was even staged by the Royal Opera House. Itís that big. So when a small Berkshire theatre had a go, eyebrows might have been raised.
Director/designer John Doyle reimagines the show as a chamber piece, and does so with immense skill and cleverness. He cuts the cast to nine, each of whom plays a musical instrument, so thereís no separate band. Sometimes it feels like a semi-staged, semi-concert version, but not often enough for harm. His set is confined and claustrophobic; there are no superfluous props, but the whole company needs always to be there.
I can only imagine how well this worked in the intimate Watermill Theatre near Newbury. Thankfully, it is just as successful in the vertiginous near-amphitheatre of Trafalgar Studio One. As we look steeply down, our own skewed perspective meshes with that of the tale before us. All the odd angles of narrative and emotion seem of a piece. The gory moments are symbolised by pouring blood between two buckets.
Paul Hegarty and Karen Mann as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett are the linchpins of an acting and musical company which locks together admirably. Not all the singing is note-perfect, but it doesnít matter. Sondheim has given his seal of approval to this 25th-anniversary reinvention of his show, and heís absolutely right to. I havenít been this thrilled by a musical since... well, since the first Sondheim work I saw. Simply terrific.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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