Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Review

Feb 20 2014 | By More

★★★★☆    Powerful and polished

St Bride’s Community Centre
Tuesday 18 – Saturday 22 Feb 2014
Review by Hugh Simpson

Big, bold and aiming for the highest possible standards, A-Team Productions’ first offering is very impressive indeed.

Michaela Robertson (Mrs Lovett) and Mark Smith (Sweeney) in A-Teams 2014 production of Sweeney Todd. Photo © Daniel Thompson

What’s in a pie? Michaela Robertson (Mrs Lovett) and Mark Smith (Sweeney). Pic: Daniel Thompson

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical based on Christopher Bond’s play is not the obvious choice for a youth theatre group.

The story tells of the eponymous barber who returns from wrongful transportation to Australia, wreaking his revenge by murdering his clients and hence supplying the raw material for his accomplice Mrs Lovett’s meat pies.

Not only are murder and rape integral to the narrative, but some of the riper language is not what is always associated with young performers, while some of the music presents real difficulties.

The uncompromising nature of the material, however, only goes to show what standards A-Team are setting for themselves. This is matched by the desire to present a production that is as professional as possible, from the impressive construction of director/designer Sean Quinn’s set to That Looks Good’s tremendous costumes.

The level of dedication and ambition here can only impress. Exemplifying this is the staging of God, That’s Good, the opening number of the second act, which features the chorus singing the praises of those dubiously sourced pies.

While this is not a particularly dramatic moment featuring a fight scene or sudden revelations, the marshalling of the resources is deftly handled, and the whole thing proceeds like a finely honed machine, each member of the cast being equally important and all knowing exactly what to do to create the atmosphere. A massive amount of thought and a huge amount of work must have gone into the staging of this number, and the result is a tour de force.

Displaying panache and real substance in a difficult role

Most of the rest of the show is of a similar standard. There is the odd glitch in the staging, but this is only because of the scale and ambition of the production, and the large behind-the-scenes crew are as important to the show’s success as those out front.

The ensemble in <i>God, That’s Good</i>,  Photo © Daniel Thompson

The ensemble in God, That’s Good, Photo © Daniel Thompson

The lighting and effects are particularly impressive, and the whole show is driven by the large and sprightly band under the direction of Finlay Turnbull, who handle Sondheim’s challenging music with aplomb.

The cast, some of whom have very little experience, attack the music with skill and gusto. Understandably, there is evidence of occasional nerves and the odd wavering accent, while more than one performer is clearly having to overcome the remnants of a cold. None of this detracts from some very impressive singing, with the most complicated lyrics clearly expressed thanks to accomplished phrasing and a careful sound balance.

Mark Smith is a compelling and vocally powerful Todd, managing both to repel the audience and evoke their sympathy. He is effectively paired with Michaela Robertson (Mrs Lovett), who is utterly at home on stage, completely believable -and once again, more sympathetic than the character has any right to be.

Kieran Brown and Hannah Brownlee, who play the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, invest their tricky duets with real emotional depth. Ross Cockburn is authentically evil as the villainous Judge Turpin, while Ola Walker’s turn as his sidekick Beadle Bamford exudes quiet, self-satisfied menace.

Emily Doran (‘Italian’ barber Adolfo Pirelli) handles a switch from comedy to a more conniving figure adroitly, while Shaun Hamilton makes the most of his cameo as the black-hearted asylum owner Jonas Fogg. Rosa Hughes, as the simple-minded Tobias Ragg, successfully makes the difficult shift from humour to pathos excellently, aided by an appealing voice.

There can be great difficulties with tone in what, despite the added back-story explaining Todd’s ‘motivation’, remains a melodrama, and could accordingly come across as ludicrous or baffling. A tight control is kept on proceedings here, however, which means it all remains thoroughly compelling. This is best shown by a magnificent performance by Sally Cairns as the mysterious Beggar Woman, displaying panache and real substance in a difficult role.

A-Team Productions’ desire to set the bar as high as possible means that they would have found it difficult to be entirely successful in every detail; that they come so close is extremely praiseworthy and augurs very well for future productions.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including interval
Run ends Saturday 22 February 2014
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat 2.30 pm
St Brides Community Centre, 10 Orwell Terrace, EH11 2DZ
Details from the A-Team website:  www.a-teamproductions.org
Tickets from Eventbrite here: www.eventbrite.co.uk


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Comments (6)

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  1. R Brown says:

    Great review. Kieran Brown unfortunately not named as the person playing Anthony Hope.

    • Thom Dibdin says:

      Thanks for pointing that out… A slip there, putting the name of the character in place of the name of the performer! All now correct.

  2. peter mason says:

    This was a really good production of Sweeny Todd. We had a fab day. The cast were really good and it proved to be one of the best shows I have seen in a long time. Thank you to you all – well done and keep up the good work.

  3. jason smith says:

    A really excellent show with wonderful performaces by all of the cast members. I was a very proud dad of Mark Smith who played Sweeney Todd.