Music: Stephen Sondheim
Book/Lyrics: Hugh Wheeler/Stephen Sondheim
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: Matthew Nichols
The Public Reviews Rating:
You have to admire, for starters, the sheer balls of the Octagon. How often – especially in these cash-strapped times – do you see regional theatres mounting full-scale actor-musician productions of challenging Sondheim scores? Very rarely. It’s a tribute to the adventurous programming of David Thacker, and the vision of Elizabeth Newman that this is an absolute triumph. Pound for pound, the Octagon emerges as the best theatre in the north-west, and this production is a great way to end their current season.
We’re invited to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and surely it’s a story that every man and his dog knows. Returned from his years in convict exile in Australia, Sweeney Todd (Tobias Beer) returns to a dark and gloomy Victorian London, hell-bent on revenge for his incarceration. Teaming up with Mrs Lovett (Ruth Alexander Rubin), maker of “the worst pies in London,” they hatch a dastardly plan, and find that there is an overwhelming appetite for the most unusual pie fillings.
Newman’s production relocates the action to what looks like a 1990s gay fetish club. It’s odd, but sort of works, and endeavours to recycle this folk legend as a spectacle, a tale for a watching audience. The sheer undertaking of this enormous and complex score, performed with great chutzpah is testament to a real spirit of ensemble playing. Sometimes, there’s a nagging sense of an intellectual idea creating an agenda for the production, rather than letting it breathe, but this is first-class stuff, and bold and ambitious in its decisions. It helps, of course, that the source material is (probably) Sondheim’s best work. Arguably the greatest composer of musical drama, this is a witty, sick and politically-loaded morality tale, with a lot to say about the world we live in and how we regard ‘the different.’
Lucy Sierra’s set is imaginative and gives the large company a lot of playing space. Mary Horan’s costumes are – the black PVC cloaks aside – a wonderful mix of penny dreadful Victoriana and modern fetish gear. Andy Smith’s sound design needs tweaking, as there are sections when the cast simply can’t be heard over the music. Tom Attwood’s musical direction is truly inspired; he conducts and plays with verve and passion, and has superbly orchestrated and tweaked the score to enhance the directorial vision. It’s a privilege to see his work.
However, it’s the cast that really impresses. Aided by a 15-strong Community Company, the cast of 10 are electric. If Beer’s Sweeney (an unenviable part, really; it never moves much out of one furious gear) is a little large in his reactions, this is compensated by Rubin’s Lovett. This is the best reading of the part that I’ve seen; she’s in great voice, incredibly sexy, funny and the heart and soul of the show. Elsewhere, Mark Heenehan is tremendous as a seedy and imposing Judge Turpin, Clara Darcy is great value as Pirelli and John Addison is a winning Anthony. Local boy Adam Barlow is simply brilliant as Tobias, and genuinely moving in his later scenes.
There are some hiccups, of course. The Community Company bring a lot to the production, but there are glimmers of ‘amateur dramatics crowd acting’ on show. I’m also not entirely convinced that the relocation of the production actually enhances it or says anything new about the piece. Also, disappointingly, there isn’t a drop of blood spilt – and this is Sweeney Todd!
Niggles aside, you couldn’t fail to enjoy this genuinely outstanding production, and we’re lucky to have it on our door-step. In a fair world, this would tour for six months, and then take up a West End residency. So, while it’s here in Bolton, make sure you get a ticket. It’s undoubtedly going to be remembered by awards panels at the end of the year, it’s one of the highlights of the season, and a triumph for Newman and the Octagon itself.
Photo: Ian Tilton – Runs until 2nd July
Sweeney Todd – Octagon Theatre, Bolton,
Tags: Adam Barlow, Andy Smith, Bolton, Clara Darcy, Elizabeth Newman, Hugh Wheeler, John Addison, Lucy Sierra, Mark Heenehan, Mary Horan, Musical, Octagon, Ruth Alexander Rubin, Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, Tobias Beer, Tom Attwood