Sweeney Todd: Review

January 19 2022, by Teddies Music

For those who were fortunate enough to secure a ticket for this sold-out production at the North Wall Theatre, this was certainly a night to remember. Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is nothing short of a colossal undertaking for any theatre company, let alone a school cast. Yet, once again, we were able to experience Teddies’ excellence at its very best. More impressively, the talented young performers were able to prepare the fiendishly difficult and nearly three-hour show after just nine weeks. The intense hours of rehearsals – courtesy of Kat Eden, Alex Tester and Annabel Sargent and the whole company really paid off. This led to a show of exceptional quality and cohesion, delivering a powerful story of murder, lust, revenge, and obsession. Almost as a macabre coincidence, we were all saddened to hear of the news of Sondheim’s own death. It was a truly moving to see the genuine tears of sadness on the young actors’ faces. Something of a testament to Sondheim’s great work, and message, and indeed a sad concurrence that made this School Musical Production even more memorable.  

The score presents challenges on both technical and musical levels. The composer’s writing is pure genius, highlighting each character’s personality with subtle musical clues and leitmotifs. Contrary to many musicals where spoken dialogue features prominently, most of Sweeney Todd is sung throughout; enigmatically, the main songs are intensely demanding to sing and, at the same time, not particularly catchy for audiences to remember. Sondheim’s love for the counterpoint of J. S. Bach is particularly evident in this work, where several melodic lines combine to shape some the ensemble numbers, creating complex polyphonic textures that are both exhilarating and mesmerising. Learning the parts of Sweeney or Mrs Lovett is not just about memorising hundreds of notes and lines: you have to study the dramatis personae, enter their complex psychology and literally “become” them, think like them, move like them. 

The entire cast was simply superb at this, night after night. Charlie Scales played Benjamin Barker, a barber who returns from wrongful imprisonment to 1840s London, bent on vengeance for the rape and apparent death of his wife, Lucy (now a Beggar Woman, the talented and characterful Bianca Rizzini-Bisinelli). From his first lines in No place like London to the unfolding drama of My Friends Charlie managed to convey the faceted nature of the devilish barber, portraying every aspect of his personality with an intensity that is rare to see in someone of his age.

Now re-named as Mr Sweeney Todd, he resumes his trade while forming a sinister partnership with his fellow tenant, Mrs Lovett (Flossie Butler-Adams). The striking relationship between the two actors was obvious from the first few lines of Worst Pies in London. Flossie’s four-star performance was a true revelation in her debut role as the infamous pie-shop keeper. Her ability to sing the highly syncopated rhythms as well as hiding her most morbid plans, for instance in A Little Priest, was most convincing.

Matthew Lewis played Sweeney’s long-time friend Anthony, who in the course of the story falls in love with Sweeney’s beautiful daughter Johanna (Sofia Arzhanova). Both characters showed great flexibility in their vocal ranges, as well as huge skill in blending their voices together in some of the tightest and most demanding duets (Kiss me!) and haunting solo songs (Johanna and Green Finch and Linnet Bird). Johanna is being held captive by the evil Judge Turpin (Will Cruddas) and the cruel Beadle (Ben Topping). Both actors excelled at portraying the characters’ thinking, providing real psychological insight as well musical panache, including humour. Patrick Maxwell was the impressive fake-Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli, assisted by the acrobatic young Tobias (Paddy Smith). Rarely have we witnessed such a winning combination of vocal skill and subtle acting talent. Their confidence in delivering their characters to the audience was paramount, as was their 100% commitment to the story. The Chorus (Charlotte Baker, Niamh Brown, Josie Denvir, Jen Ellis, Lucas Farley, Saskia Frayling, Anya Firth, Olly Gurney, Sade McNichols-Thomas, Reubin Oladele, Prisca Olagunju, Elise Rance, Lara Sowande, Oleg Voshchinskiy) was also stunning. Acting as a chorus in a Greek tragedy, every member of this ensemble deserved praise for announcing the unfolding of the story with such conviction, opening and closing the show (The Ballad of Sweeney Todd) in a fulgurating crescendo.  

The compelling singing by the cast was accompanied by a small but very accomplished Band formed by Annabel Sargent (keyboards), Marc Gillingwater and Glyn Williams (reeds), Richard Powell (trumpet), William Allen and Julian Faultless (horns), Kamran Akhavan and Mariette Pringle (violins), Aalim Beere and Anna Gunstone (cellos), Chris Xuereb (bass) and Wallace Ruby (percussion). It is true to say that the band, under the expert direction of Mr Tester, really kept the show together. As opposed to other musicals, Sweeny does not allow for many Band ‘breaks’, reserving some of the most technically demanding numbers for the end the show. Well done to the Band for bringing this complicated show to life, particularly in the last and busiest final rehearsals.      

The show owes much to the operatic world and presenting Sweeney – with its intricate scene changes and dramatic effects, props, blood, lighting, and movements – is a complex piece of theatre that needs careful planning from an early stage. The production team, headed by the inspiring Director Kat Eden and the ever-tuneful Musical Director Alex Tester, really managed to conjure up the dark images of smoky Victorian London in our familiar North Wall surroundings. The entire theatre was re-arranged to give the audience a realistic view of the City and, at the same time, of the main settings for each scene. A huge “well done” therefore goes to everyone involved in the team, including the ever-resourceful Choreographer Lisa Elkins, stage manager, costume and lighting designers and everyone else involved in this triumph. Last but not least, congratulations to the North Wall staff, to Bath and Bristol costume services and to our brilliant Catering Department for producing the most delicious meat-pies in the interval(!). Finally, many thanks indeed to the whole Company, Production Team and to you, the School Community, for your undying support of the Arts at Teddies. What a truly spectacular occasion to be proud of!

Sweeney Todd ran from November 24 – 27 2021 at the North Wall Theatre, Oxford. The final performances were dedicated to Stephen Sondheim who died, aged 91, on November 26.