Now here’s a good idea – a new musical take on the legend of Sweeney Todd. Good except that the great Stephen Sondheim got there first and his 1979 version has had three different productions in London in the last year alone. First thoughts are that the creators of this alternative must be supremely confident or perhaps slightly insane. Sondheim based his account of depravity and cannibalism in Victorian London on a play by Christopher Bond in which Sweeney was a vengeful convict returning home after escaping from Australia and Mrs Lovett was an opportunistic pie maker, seeking to profit from his killing spree. Here a much younger Sweeney has no back story and he meets the widowed Mrs Lovett long after she has begun baking her dodgy pies, plucking plump babies from her sister’s orphanage before moving on to bigger things. The strong theme of this show is that the female of the species is much deadlier than the male. Louise Torres-Ryan makes Lovett a formidable lady, ruthlessly exploiting Daniel Collard’s shy barber, Sweeney. She uses all her guile and feminine allure to seduce her man into wielding his sharp razor in exchange for his nightly nooky. Rachael Barnett, Eddie Mann, Sarah Shelton and Andy Watkins provide strong support. This 80 minute show grabs every opportunity for audience participation, creating a celebratory mood, although the grizzly plot offers little cause for celebration. Discarding comparisons with the other version, Jo Turner’s music is actually rather pleasing and well sung, although the songs are spaced out too irregularly through the show. A barbers’ shop quartet routine is inspired and very apt; Russian dance music and an Argentine Tango fit in less comfortably. Another song has no stronger pretext then “let’s all ‘ave a sing-song”, but we have to accept that most of the good lyrics about pie fillings have already been used up. For a long stretch in the middle of the show, Dave Spencer’s dialogue is of the “so bad it’s good” variety, but deadpan delivery often makes it very funny and, as the laughs are plentiful, we ought to assume that they are intentionally so. Lovett and Todd is never going to hit the heights of Sondheim’s masterpiece, but, as a small fringe show, it is cleverly done and jolly, if gruesome, good fun.
Performance date: 16 July 2015