LIGHT and dark combine for the tale of Sweeney Todd, York Light’s heavyweight production to mark both the company’s 70th anniversary and last November’s passing of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim at 91.
In 2016, Robert Readman favoured going dangerously up close at 41, Monkgate. In 2023, director-choreographer Martyn Knight returns Sondheim’s knife-edge musical thriller to a gothic grand scale, large ensemble et al, while adjusting the setting from venal Victorian to gory Georgian at York Theatre Royal.
Costume designers Suzanne Ayers and Jean Wilkinson and wardrobe co-ordinator Carly Price pull out all the stops, aided by Ellie Ryder’s wigs, hair and make-up, and sewing, wardrobe and make-up teams in big numbers. Fantastic work all round.
Under conductor Paul Laidlaw, keyboardist Simon Kelly’s organ swells to unnerving, edge-of-the-seat effect, forewarning of the terrible deeds to come in an opening that establishes how important the 30-strong ensemble will be throughout this murder-is-meat musical, whether as feral harbingers, boozy pie eaters or mental asylum incumbents.
The grave mien and embittered baritone of Neil Wood’s ponytailed Sweeney Todd further concentrates the mind on the serious business ahead as he flees Australia to return to East London after 15 years of wrongful exile at Botany Bay, vowing vengeance on the corrupt Judge Turpin (Craig Kirby, reprising his Pick Me Up role with even more insufferable judicial arrogance).
The self-flagellating Judge is the abusive ward to Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Madeleine Hicks), keeping her like a caged bird: a revelation that brings even more of a cutting edge to Sweeney’s resumption of his demon barbershop business above the worst pie gaff in London town.
Mrs Lovett (Julie Anne Smith) needs an upgrade from the grit and gristle in her pies; Sweeney is up for a slice of the action, when she turns out to be as manipulative as Lady Macbeth.
Mrs Lovett may be devoid of humanity, but now that there is 100 per cent humanity in her pies, they turn out to be bloody good, celebrated heartily in God, That’s Good, the ensemble high point of a consistently impactful performance as London’s exposed underbelly.
Behind dark eyes and a bustling air, add Smith’s humour, love-a-duck London accent and top-notch singing, and hers is a best-in-show performance, relishing Sondheim’s devilish wit and snappy turn of phrase.
As the bodies pile up, deposited down the shoot from Sweeney’s barber’s chair with a rumble in the tumble each time he shortens life rather than hair, gradually a macabre darkness of humour permeates the audience response, all the more so for Wood’s Sweeney not changing his countenance . And yet vulnerability courses through his inner turmoil.
Praise too for Maximus Mawle’s Anthony Hope and Hicks’s Johanna in the young love roles, as up against it as Romeo and Juliet, plus a treat of a camply comic turn from Richard Bayton as henchman Beadle Bamford and Clare Meadley’s damaged bird of a harrowing prophetess, the homeless Beggar Woman. Martin Lay has great fun with his faux Italian accent as preposterous, twinkling rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.
Any York production is always better for the presence of Jonny Holbek, and his Tobias Ragg, assistant first to Pirelli then kitchen aid to Mrs Lovett, is a scene stealer here: humour and tragedy, light and darkness, hope and desperation, naivety and madness, all at play in his performance.
Paul Laidlaw’s wind and brass players, together with Kelly’s keyboards and Francesca Rochester and Laurie Gunson’s percussion, bring out all the drama and rich musicality in Sondheim’s score, sometimes luscious, other times juddering and jagged.
Martin Knight’s choreography matches that musical diversity, adding to the deliciously dark delights of this juicy psychological drama. Make sure to grab a bite of this very tasty pie.
Performances: 7.30pm, tonight (27/02/2023) until Saturday plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623 568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
By Charles Hutchinson