Review by Sam Waite
First serialised beginning in 1846 and being adapted for the stage the following year, penny dreadful The String of Pearls served as the first invitation to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. Where Christopher Bond’s 1973 play The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it's Sondheim-Wheeler musical adaptation, centre on a much-spurned antihero this first tale introduced a Todd without remorse, motive, or any hint of goodness. Revised and re-titled by Opera della Luna, the piece has now returned at Wilton’s Music Hall as Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama.
Sadly the music that would have accompanied Pearls in the 1800s has been lost to time, so this production makes use of compositions by a trio of the era's composers – Michael William Balfe, Julius Benedict, and Henry Bishop. Underscored by their compositions and with occasional moments of song, this tale finds the “Fiend of Fleet Street” as an outright villain, unmarried and without children, already deep into his killing spree and stealing the titular necklace in order to sell. Familiar faces to Sondheim fans appear in the forms of Mrs Lovett, Johanna, and Tobias – Tobias is Todd’s apprentice whose master secretly murdered his mother, Lovett is a pie maker and evidence-disposer but feels no warmth for Todd, and Johanna is the daughter of an optician and awaiting the return of true love Mark.
A cast of only 7 covers the 20 named roles, with everyone put Sweeney himself, Nick Dwyer, taking on at least a second role. Where later variations on the story had a cutting wit, George Dibdin Pitt’s original – revised by Jeff Clarke for this production – is more openly comical, calling for booing and hissing at the villainous barber and openly acknowledging the cast size. The slightly overlong piece gets a refreshed energy in its final moments, as the need for other characters to appear has cast members giving vague statements of going to find another character in order to step off stage for a quick-change, the audience becoming increasingly in on on the joke.
While the cast are strong actors and singers, Nick Dwyer’s Sweeney and soprano Caroline Kennedy’s moving turn as street urchin Tobias being particularly memorable. Even more fun to watch is Lynsey Docherty, underused as Mrs Lovett but given a daring, exciting arc and plenty of opportunities to share her comedic gifts as housemaid Cecily. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if stronger dramatic and comedic arcs could have formed across the board if Clarke’s edits had done more to cut away some of the more meandering moments and give the story a sharper focus. It's a funny show and the dramatic drive is there, but with a running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, it's difficult not to be frustrated at how quickly and neatly the ending is wrapped up.
Clarke also directs the production, and keeps up a good deal of energy throughout. He helps the cast find the humour and, as his new title suggests, the melodrama in the sordid tale – but unfortunately energising the text doesn't make it any shorter, and while the first act zips by, the second feels increasingly overlong and in need of further revisions. Admirable is Clarke’s effort to recreate the atmosphere of Victorian era productions, with the fourth wall broken nearly constantly and the crowd encouraged to boo and hiss the villain – unfortunately this is somewhat at odds with modern etiquette and there was moments of silence where an audible reaction was planned for but didn't occur.
The ten-piece orchestra, conducted by Toby Purser, play magnificently throughout – the music helps to guide the emotions of each scene, despite this being another element somewhat at odds with modern convention. At times, especially when first setting up the plot lines, it feels like the un-amplified actors are focused more on being heard than playing any truth or character. Once things settled and the dialogue and music fell (very quickly) into balance with one another, the musicians added an extra layer of drama to the more intense scenes, and we're on hand for a handful of soaring, operatic numbers sung directly to the audience.
Designer Elroy Ashmore and lighting designer Paul Knott make stellar use of the two-tiered stage – dim lighting and layers of semi-translucent curtains strung at the back of the set allow the space to feel larger or more compact as required. Katia Elsianli’s wardrobe is also very effective, with simple costume choices which each bring a distinct, easy to identify appearance to each of the myriad of minor roles. This helps greatly in following a story which, as well as trimming some of the fat, might benefit from combining a few of these less important roles.
A mostly enjoyable production backed by immaculate musicianship and a willing, talented ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a better lesson in theatre history than it is a piece in its own right, but there is still plenty here to be enjoyed. While my modern sensibilities have quibbles with certain elements, it's easy to see why this kind of audience-focused, fun-forward approach to the penny dreadful was a winner with the crowds of the age.
Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama plays at Wilton’s Music Hall this week only, until April 29th.
For tickets and information, visit https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/786-sweeney-todd-the-victorian-melodrama
Photography by Andy Paradise