Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - Sweeney Todd

4th February to 27th March 2004.

From the Daily Telegraph.

Glorious blend of beautiful lyricism, magnificent score - and gallons of blood

Feeling somewhat apprehensive, I took my 10-year-old son to see Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Watermill. This, after all, is a show that features rape, insanity, serial killings and the most terrible pies in London - and Edward is ridiculously fussy about his food. Of course, he loved every minute.

And, after the mixed reviews that greeted the recent overblown production of this masterpiece at the Royal Opera House, John Doyle's stunningly inventive staging confirms my belief that Sweeney Todd works most powerfully as a claustrophobic chamber piece.

In a succession of Watermill productions ranging from Cabaret to The Gondoliers, Doyle has developed his own distinctive style when it comes to musicals, bringing the techniques of ensemble drama to the musical stage.

And his actors don't just play their characters, they play the music, too. Mrs Lovett has no sooner sung a song about her dreadful pies than she is blowing a mean trumpet solo. The sinister bald, pimping Beadle doubles impressively on keyboards, and the rest of the nine-strong cast all play instruments, too, including cello, double bass, flutes and accordion.

Those who like their musicals slick and glossy may dislike this show. The singing is sometimes rough round the edges, and the actors can't match a conventional pit band. But, when it comes to atmosphere, invention and total commitment, this Sweeney Todd packs a knockout punch.

Cunningly designed by Doyle on a stage of slatted planks, with vertiginous shelves at the back covered with phrenological models and the ghastly instruments of Sweeney's trade, it begins with a coup de theatre when the demon barber's hand suddenly emerges from a coffin that remains centre stage throughout. Little Toby is already there as a mute witness to the horrors to come, straitjacketed and gagged, and the story is presented like some ghastly recurring nightmare, endlessly re-enacted in some dark domain of the damned.

Great musicals can get set in their ways, but Doyle has the knack of forcing us to view them afresh. He daringly dispenses with the barber's chair, but there are gallons and gallons of blood, poured from enamel buckets in a blinding glare of red light whenever the demon barber slits the throat of one of his customers.

And, in a production that often forsakes penny-dreadful Victoriana for modern dress, he thrillingly captures the show's distinctive blend of gross-out Grand Guignol, sick, sly humour, and musical and lyrical eloquence.

Paul Hegarty is a charismatic Sweeney - haunted, embittered and strong voiced. As he spits out his despair in some of Sondheim's most stinging lyrics - "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/And it's filled with people who are filled with shit" - you sense a man on the very edge of reason.

But Hegarty also captures the sudden flights of beautiful lyricism in this magnificent score, though it is typical of Sondheim that the sweetest song of all is addressed not to Sweeney's daughter Johanna, but to his beloved razors.

Karen Mann is a splendidly grotesque Mrs Lovett, stomping round the stage in a leather mini-skirt and pop socks, vulgar, garrulous, totally amoral yet disconcertingly loveable. And she gets maximum value from perhaps the most outrageously witty of all Sondheim's lyrics, A Little Priest, that wickedly ingenious celebration of the delights of cannibalism.

There's strong support from Rebecca Jackson as the mad Beggar Woman, Rebecca Jenkins as Johanna and Colin Wakefield as the Judge, and I left the show convinced that Sweeney Todd is the greatest of all Sondheim's shows, and perhaps the last true classic of the American musical stage.

CHARLES SPENCER

From the Guardian.

Four stars
Stephen Sondheim's cut-throat musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street comes from the tradition of Victorian melodrama and has been embraced by the world of high art - the Royal Opera House, no less. Its plasticity - often a quality of great, enduring theatre - means that it sits very nicely on the Watermill's tiny stage, performed by a cast of actor-musicians in modern dress. There is no doubt that director John Doyle is telling a contemporary morality tale of revenge served hot in the shape of Mrs Lovett's succulent meat pies that have that little extra something: human flesh.

Sondheim's piece is as much a study of corruption as anything else, and it shines a spotlight on all our monstrous desires. Judge Turpin lusts after the girl he has brought up as his daughter, Mrs Lovett jettisons truth and conscience as she yearns for Sweeney, and the latter's increasingly uncontrolled murderous appetites lead him to kill the thing he loves.

Doyle's production recognises that this is very much a dark dissection of the heart, and takes an almost clinical approach with a setting that suggests a surgery room, with coffins as operating table and evidence of lives lived and loves lost on display like specimens in a Victorian medical laboratory. There are buckets full of blood, but the clever distancing device means that you stare with fascinated horror rather than averting your gaze.

The use of actor-musicians works a little less well here than in some other productions at this theatre, with the first half in particular seeming like an atmospheric concert version of the show. But the staging is less static and more urgent after the interval, and although there were some vocal oddities on the night I saw it, the piece takes on a thrilling inevitability as it plunges towards a climax in which the lyrical and the horrific are perfectly matched.

LYN GARDNER

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Blood and gore in directors' cut

Sweeney Todd -The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the Watermill Theatre, until March 27

There are no other words for it: director/designer John Doyle and musical director/arranger Sarah Travis' latest production is bloody marvellous. Those who regard Mary Poppins as high drama may not appreciate Stephen Sondheim's gory musical but even they must marvel at the extraordinary feat these nine actor/musicians have performed in mastering this complex production in just over four weeks - including in some cases learning to play an instrument.

Why there is no access to the auditorium until five minutes before curtain up must remain a secret and more surprises wait in this tale of the embittered barber of Fleet Street, returned from a 15-year absence to hear that his wife had died and his daughter was a prisoner.

Paul Hegarty was magnificently strong as the brooding, pallid Sweeney, eaten up with a craving for revenge and, when not slashing throats, gazing at the audience with glacial eyes as if seeking another victim.

In contrast Karen Mann poured warmth into the role of pie-maker Mrs Lovett, trying to win Sweeney's non-existent heart. The duet in which the two compared different professions for pie content was gloriously ghastly - Rear Admiral? Too salty. General? Available with or without privates - 'privates is more'. Shepherds pie? With real shepherds!

Amid the horror, the pure voice of Rebecca Jenkins (Sweeney's daughter Johanna) wove a strand of beauty and Sondheim's Johanna, sung by her lover Anthony (David Ricardo-Pearce), was a song to echo in the memory, unbearably poignant when reprised by her father.

With limited space it was a case of 'who's free to pour the blood', said Rebecca Jackson, whose keening as the old beggar woman added an eerie, wretched edge, at the after-show talkback. Creepy Beadle (Michael Howcroft), judge (Colin Wakefield), potion maker Pirelli (Stephanie Jacob) and Tobias (Sam Kenyon as Mrs Lovett's son) - everyone manipulated the props, including a coffin and step-ladders, used ingeniously to gain stepped height. That part of the back wall not taken up by a giant dresser glinted red between the boards as it did through the floor, a reminder of ever-present evil.

It would take several visits to appreciate every ingenious detail providing the framework to bring to life the disturbing tragedy of Sweeney Todd. In spite of the blood there was an appalling humour and most horrifying of all was at the moment of throat slashing, with the cast transfixed, seen in a haze of red.

You find your mouth stretching into a hideous smile, making you part of the whole, bloody superb performance.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From Newbury Theatre.

The Watermill have got another hit on their hands with Sweeney Todd. It's a marvellous combination of comedy and thriller, and its claustrophobic atmosphere is just right for the Watermill's tiny stage. Paul Hegarty is a moody, brooding Todd, only lightening up a bit when singing about the pies produced from his victims, with Karen Mann who makes a cheeky, chipper Mrs Lovell.

As usual with John Doyle's productions, the cast make the music too, on a variety of instruments, and Stephen Sondheim's clever words bring humour to contrast with the grisly killings, played out in a stylised way with red lights, slow motion, a piercing whistle and blood poured from pail to pail.

With each killing, the whistle got less loud - Todd's highs became less intense as he got desensitised to the killings, needing to do more and more to feed his habit.

I loved it, and great to see the Watermill back in such good form at the start of the season.

PAUL SHAVE

Postscript: I got my hair cut at Salvos in Reading today, and turned pale as the barber approached me with the cutthroat razor...

There is a 3-star review by Judi Herman at WhatsOnStage ("[setting the production in a lunatic asylum] slows down the action, adding unnecessary business before it even gets underway... sometimes the instruments get in the way... and the costumes don’t work for me either... nonetheless, the power of the piece, at once arousing and chilling, does come through, largely thanks to some powerful performances").