Sweeney Todd

London Times - February 14, 2000


"ATTEND the tale of Sweeney Todd," goes the opening chorus of Stephen Sondheim's "musical thriller", first performed 20 years ago. And so we did, gathered by the Sondheim cult and the extraordinary prospect of the Broadway creator of the title role, Len Cariou, on stage with another American legend, Judy Kaye. The charity to which proceeds were destined was another draw: it was Crusaid, Britain's leading fundraiser for HIV and Aids.

As a tribute to Sondheim (70 next month) the evening was, I suppose, on the grisly side: a musical birthday cake with black icing, streaked with blood, served with a cut-throat razor. But the performances were so awesomely good, and the staging so inventive, that it was impossible not to shout hooray.

The show's director, Paul Kerryson, artistic wizard at the Leicester Haymarket, worked wonders with a performance space roughly the shape of a railway carriage. Behind Julian Kelly and the orchestra on stage stood Adrian Rees's corrugated iron screen, with doors and a central opening for Mrs Lovett's pie shop. A second space, by the Hall's organ, housed Todd's tonsorial parlour. The cast were costumed. Some props were for our imagination, but the barber's chair, towels and knives, the Judge's whip, the meat grinder, all played their part, along with Jenny Cane's very effective lighting.

Occasionally limitations could not be overcome. It was a shame to see the victims Todd had just dispatched emerge from their trunk to crawl offstage. But the evening in general proved the viability of an intimate Todd, set free from excess squalor or gore. Cariou and Kaye played a crucial role here, avoiding all hammers and tongs in performances so perfectly timed and pitched that the jaw dropped in wonder. Cariou's interpretation is well-established; yet there was nothing routine in the quiet brooding of this wronged man and slasher of throats, or his look of exhausted dejection as Mrs Lovett prattled on in song about their dream future "by the sea".

Kaye scuttled about, never forcing her comedy business, wisely avoiding the overbearing London accent Angela Lansbury smeared over the Broadway show. Eloquent contributions too from Davis Gaines as the na´ve sailor Anthony and Annalene Beechey, all white dress and golden curls as Johanna. Such a pity, then, that reckless overmiking blurred words and rhythms in the helter-skelter stretches and reduced loud ensembles to an ugly screech. When will they ever learn?

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