There is a train of thought that regards the work of Stephen Sondheim as a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it!
If that’s the case, then having attended a performance of Sweeney Todd– The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Durham Musical Theatre Company - then spread it on thickly for me!
This show is possibly regarded as Sondheim’s most operatic score and libretto and a challenge even to a professional company. So many congratulations must go to the Durham group for embarking on and meeting that challenge with resounding success.
The show’s story centres on Benjamin Barker, a skilled barber falsely charged and sentenced and sentenced to transportation to Australia by a corrupt judge. Fifteen years later, he returns to London to discover he has lost his wife and daughter and so reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, searching for ways and means to wreak his revenge.
A chance meeting with former landlady Mrs Lovett sees him set up shop again as a barber in the room above her pie shop. The unlikely pair create a mutually convenient business arrangement as Todd finds it impossible to control his murderous urges and Lovett is in desperate need of cheap fillings for her pies!
The show’s recent revival in the West End, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, placed the plot somewhere in the 1930s – not to the taste of some Sondheim devotees. But director Fred Wharton put his production back into Victorian times, which gave it that dark, sombre, oppressive feel of the period.
As a tortured Todd hell-bent on revenge, Anthony Smith gave a tour-de-force performance. The intensity and pain he endures built up and showed in his every move and expression. I regard it as one of the best dramatic characterisations I have seen on an amateur musical theatre stage in many years.
The show is not all doom and gloom with excellent comedy touches provided by Eileen Glenton as pie-maker extrordinaire Mrs Lovett. She gave a master class in comic timing, particularly in her rendition of A Little Priest - duetting with Todd as they try to outwit each other in a rhyming competition over the contents of her pies.
An excellent, powerful and dominant performance is provided by Clark Adamson as the sinister, evil Judge Turpin in his insidious efforts to woo his young ward Johanna.
A good, rounded portrayal of Tobias Ragg, the youngster befriended by Mrs Lovett, comes from Steven Berry, who sings beautifully in Not When I’m Around.
The romance in the show is provided by Andy King as Anthony Hope and Catherine Marsden as Johanna – both characters well acted and sung.
I was not entirely convinced by Ed Turner’s “Uriah Heep” portrayal of Beadle Bamford, but he certainly sang well. Similarly with Tony Harries as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli who, although a somewhat OTT caricature, might have benefitted with a slight underplaying.
Good characterisation and singing from the hard-working supporting principals and chorus and excellent playing from the orchestra, under the musical direction of Steven Hood. A very clever and good-looking set made for an outstanding production for which director Fred Wharton and the Company can be justly proud.
by Gerry Troughton
Sondheim’s challenging interpretation of this Victorian Penny Dreadful is rarely tackled and congratulations to the entire production team and cast for a smoothly executed production. From the opening number and throughout the performance the strong, well drilled ensemble’s standard of singing was excellent, every word of this complex score could be understood.
Principals were well cast with many notable performances. Clark Adamson as “Judge Turpin” portrayed this twisted and evil man with conviction, ensuring that the audience found it easy to hate this character. Andy King, as “Anthony Hope”, sang flawlessly and gave a credible depiction of his characters need to ardently protect Johanna. His performance was complimented by Catherine Marsden as “Johanna”, the ward of Judge Turpin, who not only sang beautifully but was able to show the personal turmoil her character has in respect of the love she feels for Anthony against her need to please her guardian.
Steven Berry gave us the “Tobias Ragg” traditionalists would expect, that of a man who has the intelligence and naivety of a boy, and which he performed convincingly, his rendition of “Not While I’m Around” being particularly moving.
This musical revolves around the principal characters of “Sweeney Todd” and “Mrs Lovett”, portrayed by Anthony Smith and Eileen Glenton, and both were superb in their execution of both the score and the book. Anthony Smith captured the frustration and desperation of Todd, particularly in “Epiphany” where he cracks and becomes a killing monster, and at the end of “the tale” when he realised that his Lucy was also victim of his thirst for revenge. His reaction was heart wrenching. From the comic spectacle of Mrs Lovett making her disgusting pies, to her love of profit and her lust for Sweeney, Eileen Glenton gave us a master class in performance. Highlights included “A Little Priest” and “By the Sea”, every word perfectly delivered. These two performers were a tour de force on stage together, their rapport and chemistry was tangible, and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation awarded to them at the end of the evening.
by Michelle Coulson
Louisa Jane Robinson
Durham Musical Theatre Company has been performing at the Gala Theatre since it's millennial opening in 2002, and every annual performance plays out to a packed crowd, and Sweeney Todd ate no humble pie during its celebrated opening evening on Tuesday 5 February. Every performance is evidence of the sheer hard graft, and intense training these semi-professional actors are under, especially exceptional acts by Anthony Smith as Mr.T and Eileen Glenton as Mrs.Lovett who endured the lines, singing, and slitting of throats throughout. Sweeney Todd tells the story of Benjamin Barker (alias Sweeney Todd), a young man who has been wrong done by, and transported away from London for 15 years on falsely accused charges. His beloved wife Johanna who he longs for throughout the piece has been poisoned and raped by Judge Turpin, whom Todd wishes to avenge, amongst others who have wrong done him. Todd joins partnership with pie maker Mrs.Lovett, who agrees to him using the room above her pie shop for his barbershop escapades. Effective devices used in the show were the innocuous scream sound effects, as the gleaming silver razor touches the victim's neck, and also the rain imagery as a backdrop set design. The stage and key devices however brought Act II to the fore, as the infamous chair and smelting oven did not appear too soon in the piece.
The sunburnt orange fire of the oven glowed up the stage and the audience sure and half gasped when that door flew open, and one knew all too well, what was coming next. Technically, sound was faultless, and strong vocals were at the right pitch, and not drowned out by an over keen orchestra (usually the case at many other semi-amateur performances where it is not quite right). One key question always arises with Sweeney Todd, and it is always down to set design, and wondering whether the chair will be right, and believable. In my opinion, the shaft from the chair was far more draconian than I imagined, all adding to the audience excitement of blood and guts. I hope there were no members harmed in the processed, or poisoned from Mrs.Lovett's pies!
The limited use of lighting until actors fully emerged onto the stage was enticing, as it encapsulated the grimy and dim London setting of Fleet street, where Mrs.Lovett's murderous pies and apothecary is all set. As once stated with DMTC, the repertoire of shows that each season provides encapsulates an all-round talented cast, where each member is a key player. What has always appealed to me about DMTC is that no man is left unknown, there is nowhere to hide on stage, and there is never a member who lets the side down. In terms of overall singing ability, smaller roles were evidently given to the weaker members, as compared to Andy King, as Anthony and Catherine Marsden as Johanna, singing is their training expertise.
Regarding stage function, the design was that of a versatile one, and with limited changes making the transitions swift and timely. How the chair and the open were presented was that of a high quality nature, and not of some make shift cardboard cut-out oven. Overall, great quality efforts to all involved in this supreme quality piece. Although Smith was slightly stiff at times like a living corpse, his real gem moments came when he was expressing his anger and seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. Costumes and make-up were highly attention to detail, and costumes that were superbly right for the musical. All in all, I am counting down to the next production which is a treat in Durham's annual cultural calendar.
by Louisa Jane Robinson
Durham Theatre Review
Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are a hard act to follow, yet tonight Durham Musical Theatre Company offered an interpretation which was both fresh and entertaining. By far the best aspect of the evening was the outstanding performances given by every cast member. Anthony Smith was perfectly cast as Sweeney Todd; he perfected the character’s broad range of emotions from desperate grief to frightening madness with ease. Smith’s singing voice was equally strong as his acting, and his performances of ‘My Friends’ and ‘Epiphany’ were highlights of the show. Mrs Lovett was equally well cast, as Eileen Glenton portrayed both the amusing wit and sinister cruelty of her character brilliantly. Catherine Marsdon’s Johanna was outstanding, and her rendition of ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ – perhaps the most challenging song of the original score – was note-perfect. In fact, I preferred Marsdon’s live performance to that of Jayne Wisener in the Burton film. Andy King’s portrayal of Anthony Hope was equally convincing, and he carried off the character’s multiple harmonies well.
On the whole, the songs were performed excellently by every cast member. By far the best musical number of the evening was Smith and Glenton’s duet of ‘A Little Priest’. The leading actors carried off the number’s black humour perfectly, and the audience laughed along at their sinister plotting. The orchestra also deserves a mention here, as their dramatic renditions of the songs supported the cast well.
The set was much more elaborate than I have been used to seeing in student productions, and it was used to good effect. Sweeney Todd’s chair was particularly effective, as his victims slid down through a trapdoor and out of sight. Overall the set was very cleverly designed and used, as it allowed for numerous scenes to be situated on its various levels, and required minimal stage-changes between scenes. The only criticism I have of this highly professional production was that the chorus was potentially too large. In certain scenes I counted around forty cast members onstage at one time, and although this made for energetic background singing, at times it distracted from the central action. This was particularly the case in ‘God that’s Good’ and ‘The Contest’, where it was difficult to distinguish the main actors from the numerous chorus members crowding them.
Overall, Sweeney Todd was an excellent production, with professional acting, singing and stage direction. At £17.50 per ticket and with no student discount, it may be a little out of the average student’s price range, but if you’re feeling flush this week I couldn't recommend a better way to spend your extra cash.
by Michelle Newbold
Home | Current Production