Hugely talented baritone Michael Robert-Lowe was born to sing the role of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.
From his first sneering appearance in this truly gruesome staging of Sondheim’s macabre musical this young singer-actor had his audience transfixed with a performance that was detailed and exquisitely executed, deliciously dark and utterly believable. I can see this MA Musical Theatre student walking into any number of roles, including opera, that demand a personality with strong voice and commanding stage presence.
Add the delectably drawn Mrs Lovett by mezzo-soprano Becca Barratt, as irresistible and tantalising as her grisly meat pies, and we were given a dastardly duo that had us completely gripped for every moment of this intimate production in the small space of the Richard Burton Theatre.
This Mrs Lovett was amoral, amusing and alluring, coping admirably with the key and metre changes through her opening first number. Her performance of the rather an irresistible combination desperate By The Sea was funny yet not over-the-top in a song that encapsulates all of her attributes; trying to capture Todd’s affections, escape working class London, aspire to a genteel life style yet with the twist that her monstrous partner could still bump off a few visitors when he felt like it. a warming and chilling characterisation in equal measure.
I sat in the side balcony and felt so close to the drama, particularly the upper level barber shop, above the pie shop, that every time a throat got cut I flinched as the red stuff squirted my way. It was also amusing watching the people in the front row of the stalls audience squirm as buckets of “human” remains were emptied into a gutter in front of them. Great stuff. The show stopper songs from Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett were sharp and punchy. With those big numbers such as The Worst Pies in London; the vaudeville heart of the show A Little Priest; By the Sea and Not While I’m Around, every clever Sondheim lyric was as clear as a bell – a rare feat.
Timothy Roberts was a loveable Tobias, just the right balance between cheeky chappie when working with Signor Pirelli with his quack remedy hair-restorer, when the miracle elixir is rubbed into the scalps of bald men in the audience, to the heartbreakingly simple boy who eventually realises the cannibalistic, mass murder secret and becomes the final wielder of the blade in the grotesque mass killing finale.
Choreographer Grace Warner adopted a mixture of movement techniques with the ensemble to make strong use of the space, create tableaux and interact directly with the audience. Tom Murton, Charlie Cassen and Joe Wiltshire Smith played a variety of roles and each died exceedingly well!
For a reason I don’t quite get the director Paul Kerryson, set designer Diogo Pereira, and costume designer Kilah Williams set the work in the very early 1960s, rather than Victorian London which was lost on me. It didn’t detract from the show but it didn’t seem to add very much either apart from being fun. There was plenty of red lighting when required from lighting designer Tom North-Davies, rather an excess of dry ice, at least it was when sitting so close to the stage, effective use of a gantry around the upper level and also characters making use of the auditorium as well as the stage.
Yet the standard of the singing and acting from the ensemble brought this show to life, and death, with a well-paced reading of Sondheim’s score from musical director Charlie Ingles and his musicians; Elina Bennett, Charlotte Salter, Sophie Young, Thomas Butler, Eleanor Phillips, Tara Anderson, Alice Poppleton, Flora Farquharson, Joe Keenan, Pete Li D’Oyley, Sioned Evans, Jeslyn Asir, Alys Jones, Alex Morgan, Will Mead, Thomas Jordan, Peter Richards, Harry Greenway and Robert Wills.
The innocent and frankly super naïve love birds, sailor Anthony and Todd’s daughter Johanna, were finely sung by Eric Hallengren and Emma Warren and in this show the quack barber Pirelli and the Beadle were sung by female artists, Kate McKeown and Teleri Hughes. Our Pirelli got plenty of laughs with the over the top Italian accent and gesture while the Beadle was quite a spiv henchman for the real villain of the piece, Judge Turpin. James Rockey’s portrayal was as much a troubled man, a victim of the flesh, as a boo-hiss villain whose first victim, the Beggar Woman was played with aplomb by Caeli Austin.
Completing this close-knit ensemble were Isabel Briccolani who sang the Bird Seller and Lovisa Forsell and Alexandra Morton who alternate the roles of Beggar Woman and Johanna with the cast on the night I attended.
This was a neat and intense performance, neatly crafted and immensely enjoyable. Some big opera companies, including Welsh National Opera whose Sweeney production is probably best forgotten, need to take note that quantity of money doesn’t always equate with quality of production. Audiences would have loved this Sweeney had it been on the WMC stage although it would have lost some of that in-your-face intimacy.
I cannot wait to hear more from these young performers, either at the RWCMD or on the big stage when they are snapped up for work, and there is no doubt they will be in demand.
Save yourself a few pounds and grab any remaining tickets for this show rather than splash out on yet another touring musical at a bigger venue.