|Sweeney Todd||Ashley Thorburn/Devon Harrison|
|Mrs Lovett||Diane Phillips|
|Judge Turpin||Richard Woodall|
|Beadle Bamford||Clive Bebee|
|Beggar Woman||Lynn Houghton|
SURREY OPERA'S compelling production of the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller grabbed my attention from the moment the curtain rose on a set of swirling river mist, as a small boat glided across the stage bringing Sweeney Todd back to London after 15 years enforced exile.
As the mist cleared the scene was transformed to represent a dingy street with a ramshackle building centre stage, and it was on this edifice that most of the action took place.
Changes of scene were simply and effectively achieved by revolving the building to display the pie shop, the bakehouse, etc. and by using two levels, street and first floor where the Demon Barber's shop was sited, complete with tilting chair and chute to dispose efficently of the unfortunate customers.
This two-tier approach was also used to good effect to suggest Judge Turpin's house - a fine door with balcony above where sailor Anthony Hope first set eyes on Johanna. The skilful use of imaginative lighting also served to shock in moments of extreme suspense when used in conjunction with a sudden blast of sound from the orchestra pit.
All the characters were well cast, but the evening was made for me by Diane Phillips' magnificent creation of Nellie Lovett as a blowsy, warm hearted, cunning and very funny woman.
Her opening number, The Worst Pies in London, set the tone for a fine performance; a perfect foil to Ashley Thorburn's Sweeney Todd, cold and distant at the outset but becoming increasingly demonic, yet not without humour.
His pleasure on being reunited with his beloved razors was sensual in his handling of them and, in his song These are my Friends and his duet with Judge Turpin, Pretty Women, was a masterpiece of subtle black humour.
Chris Lloyd and Anna Margolis captured the freshness of young love as Anthony Hope and Johanna, while Richard Woodall and Clive Bebee as Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford were a suitably decadent pair of rogues.
Mark Millidge gave Nellie Lovett's young assistant Tobias Rag a naïve simplicity without turning him into a simpleton, and I was touched by the sincerity of his solo to Mrs Lovett, Nothing's going to Harm You.
Lyn Houghton's crazy beggar woman and Andrew Morris as the exhuberant Pirelli added to a strong cast which was supported by a fine chorus and excellent orchestra conducted by Jonathan Butcher.
The story of the Barber seeking revenge for the rape of his wife, the abduction of his daughter and his transportation to Australia by a ruthless Judge (aided and abetted by his unscrupulous Beadle) is well known. The characters are stark and clear - no understanding needed on the part of the audience. The other main character is not so easily understood. Mrs Lovett - whose idea it is to turn Todd's `victims' into meat pies - is laughable; but under the skilful direction of DANIEL CAREY's `darker' direction to the character, we are left in no doubt that Mrs Lovett is real!! The way the two of them come toward the audience with rolling pin and razor (respectively) raised `asking' for clients is extremely dramatic and totally, scarily believable.
DIANE PHILLIPS as Mrs Lovett gives a wonderful performance and what she may lack in `operatic' vocal ability she more than makes up for with her superb comic timing. CHRIS LLOYD and ANNA MARGOLIS as the young sailor and Todd's daughter are perfectly cast - their voices blending together and Miss Margolis gets my gold award for the fastest ever sung `Marry Me Sunday'!!
LYNN HOUGHTON as the beggar worman (who is in fact Johanna's mother / Todd's wife) was sung as well as the original Broadway recording - and as Tobias (the `simple' lad who is taken in by Mrs Lovett following the `demise' of his former master!) MARK MILLIDGE sings `Not while I'm around' sublimely.
The greek chorus who keep us abreast of the plot as they keep reprising `The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' has difficulty sometimes on the small Ashcroft stage - this must be on of the largest casts the stage has had to cope with! [you must have missed Aïda, see below] - keep the tale moving at a swift pace. Under the masterful musical direction of JONATHAN BUTCHER and the 25+ piece orchestra - who were flawless - and with this especially difficult score that was amazing.
The sets (largely based on the original Broadway `revolving set') were cleverly designed and executed (no pun intended!) though I have to say that the somewhat inadequate lighting in the Ashcroft let the piece down.
However I give SURREY OPERA a definite "thumbs up" for presenting one of my personal favourite Sondheim shows. It is to the credit of Surrey Opera that they have given us a production of a masterpiece which will remain in my mind for some time to come.
Last modified 25th March 2002
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