Sunday 10th July 2016
If someone had asked us if we wanted to see a group of twenty-something amateurs put on a production of Sweeney Todd, we would probably run a mile, if we hadn’t already sampled the brilliance of the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre students. RAM has an impressive track record, and having nailed Follies, a musical about aging showgirls, we were intrigued and excited to see what they would do with this rather darker Sondheim piece. We had already heard a spine-tingling version of the opening prologue at their 30th birthday concert, and although we would have to go a bit further afield to the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the journey was well worth it.
We last saw Sweeney Todd four years ago, when Michael Ball literally proved that he was more than just a pretty face. It was an impressive production, and we reviewed it and synopsised the plot here. Seeing it again, we were struck by what a good choice this is for the RAM. Everyone has something to get their teeth into (sometimes literally), and the music is rich and dense, demanding but ultimately rewarding in the right hands. Musical Director Torquil Munro has pulled off an amazing feat by bringing the music to life in all its glory – from shrieking choruses to heartbreaking melodies.
Director Michael Fentiman and choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane have served the students very well too. This is a bold production with a clear vision, but without pretensions. There are a few well chosen coups de theatre that heighten the action without detracting from it. The show opens with a post mortem going on in a gloomy upstairs room, while bodies hang below. At the end, the ‘body’ who has had his heart removed, rises up and reveals himself to be….Sweeney Todd himself. Quite an entrance. Instead of being dispatched directly via trapdoor, the victims process down a staircase, and jump into the ovens below of their own accord, falling with an eerie grace. This motif enables an emotionally powerful moment of ‘reconciliation’ at the end when Sweeney discovers the truth about his dead wife too late. Mostly the production is focused on telling the story with clarity and pace, and, perhaps most important of all, bringing out the dark humour of the piece (aided by some excellent diction).
Lawrence Smith as Sweeney exhibits a strong stage presence whilst simultaneously convincing us that he is dead inside – his energy is palpable but contained with remarkable intensity, allowing only the smallest indications of humanity from his former life. He seems to have literally stripped the character down to the bones. Musically, he conveys great emotional range, bringing out the complexity and inner conflict of painful and distorted emotions in songs such as ‘Pretty Women’ (a touching piece about the beauty of women leading up to his first murder attempt) and ‘My Friends’, where the affection shines through – for his set of cut-throat razors.
Mrs Lovett is one of the great roles for women in Musical Theatre, and Elissa Churchill grabs it with every bone in her body and doesn’t let a single opportunity slip by. She comes on in full tilt, extracting every comedic moment from her predicament as owner of the worst pie shop in London, with great delivery both vocally and visually – the gruesome lyrics are backed up with some great comic business that rams home just how disgusting these pies are. She starts out a bit scatty and eccentric and leads us on a subtle and disturbing descent to reveal a controlling and manipulating women who rivals Sweeney in evil intent.
Francisco del Solar bubbles with energy as Pirelli, the flamboyant charlatan and rival barber. One of the few truly vibrant and colourful characters, del Solar embodies him perfectly. Ruben Van Keer is convincing as the hot-headed lovestruck sailor Anthony Hope. We’ve always thought his keynote song ‘Johanna’ as little strange for a love song ‘I feel you Johanna/I’ll steal you Johanna’ but Van Keer infuses the it with genuine warmth and pure passion, leaving us in no doubt that this is one couple who have a chance of a happy ending. Charlotte Clitherow does a great job of capturing the bizarre beggar woman with a big secret. Veering between haunting pleas for ‘alms’ and some pretty vivid invitations to more carnel pleasures, her delivery is spot on. It’s impossible to mention everyone, except to say that the ultimate success of this production rests on its ensemble and the atmosphere they create. The music and action is multilayered and constantly shifting, demanding a great deal of musical and acting prowess.
One of the things we love about the RAM Musical Theatre department is their apparently unlimited ambition. Fortunately they also seem to have unlimited talent….