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Kennet Opera - Sweeney Todd

8th to 11th November 2006.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Relishing the life of pies

Sondheim's demon barber beefs up the opera repertoire

Kennet Opera: Sweeney Todd, at The Corn Exchange, from Wednesday, November 8 to Saturday, November 11

Kennet Opera has hit upon a fine addition to its stable of productions: Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

Populist but not too much so, it appeals to those who shy away from 'highbrow' opera while still pleasing opera buffs, and its relative youth - it was first performed in 1979, on Broadway - has already made it a firm favourite. And since Covent Garden has recently staged it, it's now legit.

With its colourful, layered orchestration matched by witty lyrics, and a real dramatic charge, it provides some meaty (sorry!) lead parts and a thumpingly good role for the chorus. What more could you want?

As Sweeney Todd, 'the demon barber of Fleet Street', Don Crerar showed a vengeful, anguished strength, with a stage presence born of his professional work.

Sam Spaak (Mrs Lovett) is a Kennet Opera 'old hand'. Her confidence and humour (and her Cockney accent) never faltered: this was a really characterful singing performance. Together they made a great double act.

The production was imaginatively and intelligently directed by Christopher Rands: an object lesson in making mass slaughter eminently watchable. There were no dramatic lulls, and thoughtful movement and grouping.

A cleverly stepped set - tacky wooden structures and platforms - became city streets, Todd's establishment, Mrs Lovett's pie shop and Bedlam. Sparing use of projection on to a ghostly-white suspended backdrop helped the drama. Atmospherically lit and well-costumed, the whole gave a feel of Victorian London and its demi-monde.

Kennet Opera has a real ensemble approach, so there was fine support from the warm, youthful, expressive voice and stage ability of professional Alexander Anderson-Hall as Anthony Hope, his voice blending well with that of Abbie Jones (a sweet Johanna).

Jack Dillon as a touching Tobias Ragg used his strong voice to good effect, and Cathy Doidge as the beggar woman was an unsettling, almost unearthly presence. Gordon Fry (Pirelli), Mike Scott-Cound (the loathsome Judge Turpin) and John Heywood (Beadle Bamford) also gave sterling support.

The chorus (here augmented by five pit singers) clearly enjoyed their powerful narrating role - and communicated that enjoyment.

For the first time, the company performed to an 11-piece performance orchestra, conducted by musical director Paul Jeanes, rather than to two pianists. And what a difference it made.

The singers patently relished being supported by a larger, fuller sound, which alone gave an added dimension to the production.

For an amateur company to stage opera deserves a plaudit in itself, but to have been successfully doing so for more than 12 years is a huge achievement. The number of new faces in this production is testament to Kennet Opera's vitality.