Sweeney Todd

Stephen Sondheim’s score for his self-described “black operetta” Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, must rank among his most complex and challenging works, if only in terms of its musicality and orchestration. So producers/directors Ben Pollard, Kerry Robinson and the students of Eltham College certainly can’t be faulted for bringing something easy to Edinburgh; that they don’t entirely succeed in bringing the show to full gruesome life, however, is as much about external circumstances as anything on the stage.

The solution to potentially the most challenging aspect of the set – the special barber’s chair which delivers Sweeney Todd’s victims to the bakery below – is effective

On the plus side, the young cast includes some genuine stars: Ruari Paterson-Achenbach is an appropriately imposing, and psychologically-slow-burning, Sweeney Todd. Anna Toogood almost lives up to her surname as his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, attacking many of her songs with real relish. Initially, at least, Anthony Hope as the innocent young lover Alex Zane doesn’t quite hit the right emotional register, but he seems to find his feet once interacting with Sarah Selley, who excels in the none-too-easy role of the young “caged” object of Zane’s affections, Johanna.

In some other cases, though, the age of the youthful cast works against them, no matter how much they try. Ed Collings simply doesn’t project a sufficient level of decrepitude as the self-serving villain of the story Judge Turpin, although Finley Baldwin does offer an enjoyably snideness as the Judge’s henchman, The Beadle. Henry Wilson, as the other young innocent of the piece, Tobias Ragg, offers a gawky physicality on the somewhat cramped space (especially on those occasions when all 20 of the cast are on stage), but sometimes his vocals are swamped by the live band above the cast towards the rear of the stage. Indeed, while all the cast are miked up, the sound balance was, at least on the day of the review, initially all over the place – but that is occasionally the case in venues where there’s barely 20 minutes to remove one show before the next one is due to start.

Phill Russell’s modular set is simple enough – a large box which raises some of the actors above the stage, with added steps on either side, which can be manipulated to present a variety of buildings. His solution to potentially the most challenging aspect of the set – the special barber’s chair which delivers Sweeney Todd’s victims to the bakery below – is reasonably effective, though its effect is marred by the all too visible way in which the “dispatched” cast members then walk off stage – which unavoidably undercuts the drama as much as the light percussion sound which supposedly represents a gunshot.

Worth seeing, certainly, but this is a production that nevertheless feels a tad cramped by both the scale of the stage and the time restraints imposed by the venue.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

A triumphant return to Edinburgh following sell-out productions of Oliver! and Nine with this stark and spine-tingling production. Featuring a cast of twenty authentic Londoners and a live band. The gothic staging of this classic tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street unfolds to the chilling strains of Sondheim's timelessly beautiful score. Continue to be haunted long after the last of Todd's unfortunate victims has been served up in one of the gruesome Mrs Lovett's legendary dishes. You will never eat a meat pie again!

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