Sweeney Todd ... The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton gave hostage to fortune in his rather splendid big-screen version of Sweeney Todd, which opened in the UK earlier this year. Any company bringing a version of Sondheim’s goriest musical to Edinburgh were going to be compared to rather fresh memories of a lavish Hollywood production – indeed, other Sondheim productions in Edinburgh this year are using the tagline ‘from the creator of Sweeney Todd’, such is the power of a blockbuster release. And unless they have a couple of Million tucked under the mattress, any Fringe version is probably going to look rather flat.

Getting back to the plot, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a barber who slit the throats of his customers whilst Mrs Lovett, his neighbour, turned the carcasses into meat pies. The original story comes from a Victorian Penny Dreadful comic, which has been retold many times, but Sondheim used Christopher Bond’s 1973 play as his basis for this musical, which offers the ubiquitous love story and, at least, some kind of motive for Sweeney rather than just being a slasher serial killer.

At times it seemed Wendy Payn’s role was less of director, and more in crowd control, as Maltings Youth Theatre came en-mass to Edinburgh. Although Greenside has a reasonably-sized stage for most Fringe productions, there were moments you couldn’t see much further than the front row of kids, such was the density of performers. This worked in their favour for some of the ensemble numbers, giving them a lot of voices to fill the room, but the long streams of people going in and out of the side entrances (half way up the auditorium) was rather odd. Especially as their stage-left doorway appeared to open out onto the church grounds and bright daylight.

The singing was generally ok – even with the occasional tuning problems – particularly for the youthful age of some of these players, but the acting – especially from the lead performers – was not great. Peter Lannon as Todd stomped around as though he was Herman Munster, and Charlotte Payn as Lovett was over-acting uncontrollably through most of her scenes and at a completely different energy level to the rest of the cast. Sam Birkett as Beadle Bamford seemed to be trying to copy Timothy Spall’s version of the character from the film, an imitation he did not pull off, I might add. If there was one beacon of hope in this chaos, it was Grace Bennett as Johanna, who lifted this piece from the tediousness it was heading for.

Overall it’s not a terrible version of the show, but the mob-handed chorus and very iffy acting doesn’t make it easy watching.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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