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November 6 2016, Reviews The David Beach Competition

Sweeney Todd sweeneytodd-pic

WODS Musical Theatre Company

The Blakehay Theatre

Weston-super-Mare

Friday 4th November 2016

Sweeney Todd is a very dark story for a musical: The origins of the character coming from the popular Victorian ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ – weekly publications, often illustrated, typically depicting stories of crime and horror. Sweeney, the murderous barber was very popular amongst Victorian readership and even crossed the Atlantic in an American version. A melodramatic Victorian play was produced, featuring many of the characters finally seen in the Sondheim version. Much later, in 1973 Christopher Bond reincarnated Sweeney in a stage production in London featuring the title character as the victim of a ruthless and unpleasant judge who raped his wife, then exiled him to Australia. Sondheim saw the production and was convinced that the addition of music would increase the dramatic effect of the story and enhance the collapse of the psychologically damaged Todd and Lovett. The result was a fascinating show full of drama and tragedy, supported by some superb music that has firmly established itself within the amateur theatre canon.

As a choice of show for WODS it was full of possibilities and challenges: Sweeney Todd is most often seen as a ‘large-stage’ production so would require scaling down to fit in the limited space of the Blakehay (any scaling-down makes attention-to-detail all the more vital as everything is more exposed); it is not an ‘easy sing’ so would challenge any society’s performers and great directorial ability would be needed to maintain the powerful and threatening atmosphere the show demands.

Director Owen James and his production team; Musical Director Kevin Joint, Production Support Aaron Pengelly (BA Hons – as he tells us in the program!) and Carrie Buck have clearly worked hard to try to ensure that the show matches the level of quality it deserves. In many ways they were successful: Blessed with some terrific individual performers, there were some memorable moments. At times however, I must admit to noticing that Sondheim not being ‘an easy sing’ was apparent and the ‘pared-down’ nature of the staging resulted in rather less dramatic impact than I might have expected and consequently the atmosphere and audience connection was a little variable. Having said this, the full-house audience I was sitting amongst certainly showed their full appreciation, so I may be entirely misguided.

There were certainly two stand-out performances: Bring on the Creswicks! Ed Creswick, as the eponymous Sweeney was undeniably superb. He sang with his usual, apparently effortless excellence and his sheer physicality was magnetic to the eye. To be an audience member quietly enjoying the show, then to have Sweeney Todd himself leering over you and offering you a shave at one hundred and ten decibels would have left me considering a change of underwear so congratulations to the gents in the audience who experienced this delight and survived unscathed! Such was the power and believability of Ed’s performance that even this breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, along with several (in character) nods and winks to the auditorium only served to enhance this characterisation. Then we turn to the other Creswick gracing the Blakehay’s stage: Tom. I have followed Tom Creswick’s stage career with interest and it has been fascinating to watch his confidence, presence and voice develop. His Tobias Ragg showed us a young performer really finding himself. A confident, believable performance full of good musicality and relaxed, natural delivery: Very well done- I look forward to seeing him in many shows to come.

WODS are fortunate to have strength and depth in performers and both supporting cast and principals all acquitted themselves well. Lynda James (Mrs Lovett), Ian Pring (Anthony Hope), Becky Jackson (Johanna), Andy Heaven (Judge Turpin), Dave Bailey (Beadle Bamford) and Blair Ruddick (Adolfo Pirelli) coped well with Sondheim’s challenging music, as did the Balladeers.

I must also make special mention of Bev Preist as Beggar Woman – always a tricky role to pitch correctly, in terms of performance: Too OTT and she looses the pathos, too low-key and she is lost in the mix. Bev judged her performance very well – the tragedy within her madness worked very well indeed. A lovely performance.

Steven Sondheim is one of my favourite composers, Sweeney Todd is one of my favourite shows and Sweeney Todd himself is one of my favourite characters in the musical theatre so, particularly with such a strong performance of the role, how could I fail to enjoy the show? Could the set design have been better? Could diction and clarity have been improved? Could there have been more atmosphere? Could attention to detail have been higher? Possibly, but does it matter? Most importantly the audience on Friday certainly seemed to enjoy themselves very much– what better praise could WODS need?

Thanks for inviting me

Ian