THEATRE Sweeney Todd Leicester Haymarket
Friday 22 November 1996
It reminded me of the equivalently false moment at the end of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd when the chorus turns on the audience and implies that we are all responsible, in our hypocritical righteousness, for making Sweeney a mass murderer. To which the only answer is: "Speak for yourself, guv". It's just about the solitary duff note struck in a show that the more I see the more I'm convinced is one of the greatest pieces of music drama written since the war - a stunning study of love warped by injustice to an obsessional vengefulness and Sondheim's likeliest passport to immortality.
In one of the many beautifully judged touches of Paul Kerryson's exhilarating revival of the piece at the Leicester Haymarket, the chorus, who sing with a wonderfully baleful edge, are seen clutching their throats and sinking into a pit of blood-red mist. What we focus on, finally, is the murderous effect of Sweeney, not on the causes of his crimes. This isn't a production that underestimated the hero by presenting Dave Willetts's powerfully acted Sweeney as predominately a victim-figure. Likewise, the demon barber's idea that he is somehow cleansing society of its two-faced oppressors is neatly belied by the way the customers are here all young, poor men, hardly on a par power-wise with Mark Rope's finely sung, villainous Judge Turpin.
The first Broadway and West End productions of this show were both vast, horribly over-produced affairs. Since then the virtues of stripped-down, unnervingly intimate stagings have been explored, not least in Declan Donnellan's 1993 Cottesloe revival. Kerryson's production solves the problem of getting that close-to intensity and cleanness of focus on a large stage. The stark scaffolding and the mobile gantreys that can rise and fall to create bridges, streets and balconies make clear statements with a splendidly uncluttered flexibility. The barber's shop and Mrs Lovett's parlour are a swivellable truck-set within a set. You get the sense of society as an industrial machine that can't be escaped, for all Mrs Lovett's would- be genteel knick-knacks, even in her piss-elegant parlour where the walls are here constructed from sheets of sooty corrugated iron.
In this role of amoral, obsessively adoring accomplice in crime, Jeanette Ranger is knock-out, both vocally and dramatically. There's a chilling comic discrepancy between her comfortably plump, maternal presence and that mental cut-out from ordinary human feeling which enables her to do anything to hold on to Sweeney and her dreams of sweet domesticity. This Lovett reminds you that many people described Rosemary West as motherly. Her performance, with its cheerful and eerily seamless volte-faces, and that of Stuart de la Mere's deeply affecting Toby (which has no touch of the Dick Van Dyke syndrome that made the creator of the role on Broadway so wincingly hilarious) stand out in an impressive cast. To adapt the words of the chorus: Attend this tail of Sweeney Todd.
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