Westcliff High School for Boys’ drama club under the direction of Ben Jeffreys, who otherwise teaches history, first came to our atttention at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017 when students performed a devised piece, Waiting for Offsted. It cleverly captured the essence of Beckett and successfully translated his style and imagery into a new context. Five years later, three of the highly talented boys, who at that time were in years 7 and 8, are now in years 12 and 13 and with the same director feature in the school edition of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
A gripping show that reaches to the heart of Sondheim
Jacob Guyler gives a commanding performance as Todd. He captures the man who is overcome with revenge and filled with sinister and villainous intentions to all around him when he becomes frustrated in his cause, but also reaveals Todd's humanity in the love and loss he experiences for his wife and daughter. He carries those contrasts through to the songs with a voice that matches the demands of the role. Archie Hepburn now has an imressive baritone voice that highlights the gravitas he brings to the role of Judge Turpin in a highly dignified peformance. Finally from that group, Benjamin Dixon appropriately plays second fiddle to the Judge whose dirty work he he does with grovelling allegiance, whilst swaggering around full self importance.
These lads have risen through the ranks but many others have joined with them since 2017 and there are fine performances elsewhere. Dexter Legon, who looks as though he is on his way to play a pantomime dame, has an element of that in his captivating portrayal of the pie-shop owner Mrs.Lovett. Indifferent to the fate of Todd’s customers Legon nonchalantly displays Lovett’s business mind and sets about contemplating the variations of pies to be made from different classes of gentlemen without even a wobble on his court shoes.
Years before these events Todd had been wrongfully convicted by Turpin and sent to a penal colony. His return to London was achieved with the help of a youthful sailor, Anthony Hope played by Rafael Gamma. Mrs Lovett tells Todd that his wife committed suicide but that his daughter was made a ward of court and lives with Judge Turpin. Hope is used in the plot to regain her and so Gamma, full of innocence and dreamy ambitions fills the lovesick role admirably once he sets eyes on Johanna Barker, Todd’s daughter. Peggy Jefferson joins the boys to beautifully cover this soprano role.
This nasty tale is not without humour. Lewis Seal makes the most of playing rival barber and charlatan, the flamboyant Italian Adolpho Pirelli, with delightful eccentricity. He is very quickly disposed of and his poor young apprentice, Tobias Ragg, finds a home with Mrs Lovett. Gabriel Williams brings remarkable depth and intensity to this role that becomes pivotal to the story. Meanwhile Crystal Rosher-Smith has been popping up all over the place as the Beggar Woman, making something really amusing out of this slight part.
A chorus of thirteen appears in various crowd scenes in a variety of costumes adding a sense of street life and location. As with the main characters they have a range of abilities as would be expected in a production covering boys of all ages. Not all the voices in the show are necessarily outstanding, but it is the spirit and conviction they create that stands out. Their conbined effect is to put on a gripping show that reaches to the heart of Sondheim.
The musical is performed in the round; a black box created by the curtained walls of the library. It was always Sondheim's intention that his work be performed in a small, dark theatre that might induce fear and terror into the hearts of the audience and that is precisely what Jeffreys has done.