Review – Sweeney Todd

Mar 29 2012 | By More

★★★☆☆   Groundbreaking

Church Hill Theatre: ends Sat 31 Mar 2012
Review by Thom Dibdin

Dark and barbaric in its tone, Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday is also something of a groundbreaking venture for the company in its delivery.

The production takes composer Stephen Sondheim’s use of a Greek chorus, who reflect and enlarge on events throughout the musical, and builds on it by incorporating British Sign Language into every aspect of the show – from the choreography to the figures who ghost the main characters.

Hazel Beattie as Mrs Lovett and Warrick Hunter as Sweeney Todd. Pic: Alan Potter.

The effect is electric at times, particularly in the chorus’s repeated signing – and singing – of Sweeney Todd’s name. It certainly never detracts, but while it adds a layer of meaning, it is no substitute for actual acting.

The use of BSL makes for a very dense and crowded production as the wronged barber, Benjamin Barker, returns to London after 15 years in a prison hulk in Australia. Reinventing himself as Sweeney Todd, he seeks revenge on the judge who falsely imprisoned him and stole his beautiful young wife.

It’s a opening that thrusts you into the hell-pit of London in the mid 19th century. A mad beggar woman immediately attempts to importune the lad Anthony Hope who gets off the same boat as Todd, before turning to Todd himself. All around the stage, lie the bodies of the destitute.

gruff, guttural delivery

Warrick Hunter is in excellent voice as Sweeney Todd. He has the gruff, guttural delivery which can carry the tune and both deliver the words clearly and make them heard through the strident orchestrations. If it is solid performance, imposing rather than impulsive, it is a memorable one.

Against him Hazel Beattie has a whale of a time as Mrs Lovett, maker of the worst pies in London. Her revelation that Todd’s wife poisoned herself after being tricked by Judge Turpin, leaving their daughter Johanna as Turpin’s ward, only adds to Todd’s desire for revenge.

A scene from Sweeney Todd. Pic: Alan Potter

The working out of how that revenge will take place is what drives Act I of this “musical thriller”. Beattie scuttles around entwining herself into Sweeney Todd’s desperate actions, as he drums up business in a contest with charlatan barber Pirelli and his boy, and decides to turn the room above Lovett’s pie shop into a barbers.

As Todd’s skill with a razor blade combines with an attempted blackmail – resulting in the inevitable dead body which needs disposed of – Beattie provides the evening’s high-point as Mrs Lovett suddenly realises the possibilities in recycling the victim as filling for her pies. It’s rounded off by Lovett and Todd’s duet: A Little Priest, itemising the professions which might end up in a pie.

Director Michael Richardson succeeds in drawing the whole plot out clearly – at least in Act I. There does need to be a better balance in volume between the different members of the chorus, but everywhere there are strong vocal performances.

Kenneth Pinkerton is particularly fine as Judge Turpin, flagellating himself in self-loathing at his lust for Johanna. Gert Griesel strides easily through the role of Beadle Bamford, cock-of-the-walk and the Judge’s right hand man. While Michael Davies brings a necessary touch of comedy as the charlatan Pirelli.

tangential detail

Adam Pringle, as Anthony Hope, delivers vocally, but needs to put a lot more into his physical performance. And while Venice van Someren is excellent as the boy Tobias, she does need to either ensure that her delivery is to the audience or that her diction is significantly better.

At three hours, this is a long production and Act II becomes mired in what feels like tangential detail. It is not helped by the darkness of the set, the crowding of the staging and the need for absolute clarity in the diction, but slicker directorial control would have improved matters.

All of which is quickly forgotten, however, as the production reaches its finale.

Suddenly the roots of the plot in a Penny Dreadful tale of revenge become clear. And all those previous scenes of destitution, cannibalism and compulsive murder were not dark at all. Not compared to the ending which now seems inevitable.

Great stuff all round that will certainly please fans of the Gothic – but which just needs to do that bit more to achieve the fourth star it certainly deserves.

Running time: 3 hours.
Run ends Saturday 31 March 2012
Shows: daily 7.30pm; Sat mat 2.30pm.
Edinburgh Music Theatre website:

The chorus of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s Sweeney Todd integrating BSL into their choreography. Photo credit Alan Potter


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