LIGHT meets dark when York Light Opera Company return to York Theatre Royal from Wednesday in “one of the darkest musicals ever written”, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
Steered by the familiar hands on the tiller of director Martyn Knight and musical director Paul Laidlaw, the show is set in the Georgian era, rather than the usual Victorian London murk.
In York Light’s 70th anniversary production, Neil Wood takes the title role of the misanthropic barber who returns home to the Big Smoke after 15 years in exile, seeking vengeance on the corrupt judge (Craig Kirby) who ruined his life.
The road to revenge leads to him to open new tonsorial premises above the failing pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Julie-Anne Smith). Cue a very tasty meaty new ingredient to boost sales in this now cutthroat business.
“Yes, it’s dark and gruesome, but it’s so funny too,” says Neil. “One moment the audience are bent double with laughter; the next they’re in tears. A lot of it comes down to the patter style that’s reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Richard Bayton, by day in charge of ticket sales for Sweeney Todd as York Theatre Royal’s box office manager, will be playing Beadle Bamford. “Two months into rehearsals, I’m thinking, ‘who is this man? There has to be more to him than how than how he ends up’, so I’ve built up the character, when he’s often seen as comic relief but I’ve looked to make him darker,” he says.
“I’ve really enjoyed it because it’s always fun to play a bit of a baddie, though the real baddie is definitely Judge Turpin.”
Julie-Anne Smith’s Mrs Lovett occupies the dark side too with her surprisingly delicious but morally dodgy pie contents. “Everyone is damaged in this piece, all except Anthony Hope [played by Maximus Mawle],” she says. “Even Johanna [Madeleine Hicks] is extremely damaged – and living with the Judge, she would be! Everyone else represents the underbelly of London.”
Neil rejoins: “Whether you’re playing Shakespeare’s Richard III or Sweeney Todd, you have to find something you understand in the character. It’s not until he meets the damaged Mrs Lovett, who has her own agenda, that he changes course after being wrongly exiled for a crime he didn’t commit.
“Through fate, he has found his way back home to London to find his wife dead and discover what the judge has done, with his daughter now in the judge’s hands. In that moment, Mrs Lovett manipulates him, and it’s like a puppet being played with, on a knife edge.”
Julie-Anne says: “You have to push that notion that they’re only human; you have to make that connection with the character you’re playing. At the end of the day, she’s human, she’s damaged. She just wants a cottage by the sea and will do anything to get it.
“That’s why she’s interesting to play because people can never believe the horrific deeds that humans can do, but particularly if it’s a woman perpetrating such horrific crimes, but her humour endears her to the audience – and they’re laughing with her rather than at her. That’s why I like playing the anti-hero, because they’re more complex.”
From the maniacal Sweeney Todd to Titus Andronicus, such characters “have always been more interesting, with the best lines”, notes Neil. “We’re just really lucky to have the chance to be doing such roles,” he says.
“It’s also the right time to be staging Sweeney Todd, especially with Stephen Sondheim passing away last year. There’s lots of interest in him again, with Sweeney Todd running on Broadway and the Sondheim concert, Old Friends, with Bernadette Peters in the company, that’ll be on in London at the Prince Edward Theatre for 16 weeks.”
Richard is savouring the meatiness of Sondheim’s lyrics in a show where 80 per cent of Sweeney Todd is set to music, either sung or underscoring dialogue. “They’re so rich in meaning,” he says. “I’ve been able to find new interpretations and new meanings in every rehearsal because you can read so much into them.”
Neil adds: “It’s such a complete show; the orchestrations are wonderful, and Martyn Knight and Paul Laidlaw have been a joy to work with as they really appreciate what a challenge Sondheim is. That’s why we started in early October on the music, and then Martin came up for a first block of rehearsals from November and has back since January after a Christmas break. You can’t start working on the detail until the words are embedded in you.”
Julie-Anne is thrilled to be putting flesh on Sondheim bones in Sweeney Todd. “I was in a professional group, Lucky 4 You, that performed Sondheim songs all around Yorkshire, and I’d always wanted to do the big duet from Sweeney within the context of the show. Now I can do that with Neil.”
York Light Opera Company in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, York Theatre Royal, Wednesday (22/2/2023) to March 4, 7.30pm, except February 26; 2.30pm, February 25 and March 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.