National Youth Music Theatre – Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Sweeney Todd – Matt Nalton
Anthony Hope – Tom Milligan
Beggar Woman – Steffani Nash
Mrs Lovett – Lizzie Wofford
Judge Turpin – Thomas Isherwood
Beadle Bamford – Adam Small
Johanna Barker – Rebecca Nash
Tobias Ragg – Michael Byers
Adolfo Pirelli – Stewart Clarke
Jonas Fogg – Daniel Scott-Smith
Bird Seller – Susannah Chaytow

Ensemble: Jack Armstrong, Helen Clarkson, Kayla Cohen, Becky Durbin, Laura Ferrin, David Grant, Molly-May Keston, Tom Kitney, Luke Leahy, Maria Montague, Andrew Nance, Jessica Pardoe, Aaron Pryce-Lewis, Piers Saich, Helen Slade, Joshua Taylor, Hannah Thompson & James Way

Orchestra: Rosamund Harpur – flute & piccolo; Fergus McAlpine – flute/piccolo/clarinets; Elsie Woollard – oboe/cor anglais; Naomi Kreitman – clarinet/bass clarinet; Greg Topping – bassoon; Freddie Miles – horn; James Symington & Matt Abrams – trumpets; Alistair Gibson & Owen Reeves – trombones; Adam Funnell – bass trombone; Michael Kielty & Nathan Lewin – percussion; Alexander Thomas – harp; Stephanie Childress, Ellen Gibbons, Claire Roff & Curtis Wilkinson – violins; Jonathan Edwards & A. J. Suvan – violas; Hannah Lewis & Alex Maynard – cellos; Rachel Phillips – double bass; David Weale – organ

Jeremy Walker – Musical Director
Martin Constantine – Director
Sarah Redmond – Movement Director
Mark Friend – Designer
Jonny Milmer – Lighting Designer
Olly Steel – Sound Designer
Anne-Marie Horton – Costume Supervisor


Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 6 August, 2010
Venue: Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, London EC2

It was Christopher Bond who had directed the Half Moon version with a cast of ten plus life-size puppets which each character carried to fill out the personnel. It was Bond too who was originally responsible for the inspiration for Sondheim’s musical version of “Sweeney Todd”. The composer was in London in 1973 for the opening of “Gypsy” with Angela Lansbury and, being a fan of grand guignol and Victorian music hall, he went to the Theatre Royal at Stratford East where Bond was staging his own adaptation of the hoary old melodrama about serial-killer Sweeney Todd. The story had first appeared in one of the Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ newspapers in 1846, written by various hands and, while it was being serialised in eighteen weekly parts, it also appeared in a stage-version by George Dibden Pitt called “The String of Pearls” or “The Fiend of Fleet Street” at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton High Street. Although there may once have been a murderous barber with a pie-making accomplice, it is generally thought that the story is in fact an urban legend.

Sweeney has returned to his old stomping (shaving?) ground, just down the road from Hoxton at the Village Underground, a converted Victorian warehouse in Holywell Lane, which the National Youth Music Theatre has acquired as its new performance space. It’s in Shoreditch, a few hundred yards south of the site of the Britannia, the original venue for “Sweeney Todd”. Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to the Britannia which operated from 1841 to 1900, and he even made reference to Todd in his novel “Martin Chuzzlewit”. The Britannia subsequently became a Gaumont cinema from 1913 until 1940 when it suffered bomb damage during the World War Two. The site is now a block of flats but there is an English Heritage plaque commemorating the Britannia Theatre.

Village Underground is a large, versatile, oblong space which will surely prove to be adaptable and therefore ideal for presenting any sort of show. It should suit the members of the National Youth Music Theatre, allowing them plenty of opportunity to perform whatever they like. The NYMT was founded in 1976 by Jeremy James Taylor, since when it has moved from its home at Mill Hill Junior School in north-west London to Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House, but now it has its own dedicated venue. The company’s first show, “The Ballad of Salomon Pavey”, was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequent shows have toured to Japan, Norway, Greece, Taiwan, Canada, Hong Kong and the USA. It has premiered many new pieces including work by Richard Stilgoe, Howard Goodall & Charles Hart, Alan Ayckbourn, and Richard Taylor. Sponsorship from Andrew Lloyd Webber allowed the company to go abroad and to present “Bugsy Malone” in London’s West End for a three-month season. For over thirty years NYMT has enabled youngsters to develop their interest in acting and singing.

For “Sweeney Todd” the whole Village Underground is used, more or less in the round, with the audience on three sides, the actors performing mostly at ground level. The far end of the space has a raised platform denoting Sweeney’s upstairs barber’s shop, complete with a trick chair that conveys the bodies down a slide to Mrs Lovett’s kitchen. There is a lot going on in Sondheim’s version and Martin Constantine’s production keeps it on the move with pace and precision. The audience enters to a general scene of what could be a London street or indeed a lunatic asylum as the cast move around muttering, shouting and filling the air with piercing, bloodcurdling screams. As the piece gets underway it is played continuously, moving from one scene to another with seamless fluidity, as Todd returns to London from prison in Australia, to pick up the pieces of his lost life. He learns that his wife Lucy went mad and died, and that his beautiful daughter Johanna now has Judge Turpin as her guardian but he keeps her firmly under lock and key.

Todd, or Benjamin Barker as he was once called, goes to Fleet Street to see his old lodgings above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and determines to pay back the society that ruined his family and had him banished. Judge Turpin had lured Lucy to his house where he assaulted her and seized her daughter, while Barker was accused of a crime he did not commit and packed off abroad. “I will have vengeance, I will have salvation”, he promises. Mrs Lovett, however, recognises Barker and presents the barber with his razors, the tools of his trade which she kept for him. They hit on a scheme which suits both of them, whereby he can practice his skills as a barber and killer while she pops the resulting bodies into pies to sustain her flagging business. Trouble brews when Todd’s seafaring companion Anthony Hope espies Johanna and immediately falls in love with her. Todd and Anthony plan to release Johanna who has now been sent by the Judge to a lunatic asylum. Todd’s obsession leads to further mayhem and the ultimate horror that involves more bloodletting and final retribution.

Sondheim called his show “a musical thriller” and rarely has a musical or opera even contained so many genuine thrills. However, it is a melodramatic opera tempered by black humour as a kind of light relief to make the real horrors almost acceptable. NYMT grabs every opportunity to both excite and amuse. It is a company show and it fields so much young talent that, once the music starts, they never put a foot wrong and runs like a superbly crafted timepiece – no hitches, no glitches, nothing but superbly confident acting, singing and movement – especially the latter (skilfully directed by Sarah Redmond) which in a vast cave like this would show up any discrepancies. The big production numbers such as ‘The Worst Pies in London’, ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir’, ‘A Little Priest’, ‘God, That’s Good!’ and ‘City of Fire’ are all handled miraculously by this eminently professional if amateur cast.

The principal roles are all taken by gifted players. Matt Nalton is a dark and brooding Sweeney, with a strong voice and a powerful presence as the “artist with a knife”; Lizzie Wofford’s Mrs Lovett is a scream, charismatic to her fingertips, with an eye for the main chance and no scruples about getting it; Tom Milligan and Rebecca Nash are well cast as Anthony and Johanna; Thomas Isherwood is evil incarnate as the Judge and Adam Smith sneers well as his slimy, fawning sidekick, the Beadle Bamford. Michael Byers is a brilliant and very confident player as Mrs Lovett’s assistant Tobias Ragg, and quite moving in his song ‘Not While I’m Around’ which he sings to Nellie as a means of thanking her. If Michael hasn’t played Oliver Twist yet, I’m sure he will one day.

The band under Jeremy Walker provides a big sound which suits the frighteningly eerie score. All in all, it’s one of the best productions I have seen of Sondheim’s masterpiece and I have seen most of them. The future of British musical theatre is truly safe in the hands of exceptional performers such as those of the National Youth Music Theatre.

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