This is a gritty and dark version of the classic tale adapted from George Dibdin Pitt’s Victorian original. All the Melodrama favourites are here; Hero, Heroine, Rogue and of course, Villain.
Within this text, the rich language of the Victorian age presents a challenge of elocution, and reminds us of a bygone era of both prosperity and poverty. The twelve songs have been arranged by a local composer and all will remind you of lullabies and rhymes sung by another generation to our parents, as they played parlour games and made ready for dinner or sleep.
All of the cast are under 18, and come from a local youth theatre company called Sentre Stage and the Lewes Theatre Club youth group. Sweeney Todd opens the 2008/9 season with a musical melodrama loaded with humour and bloody revenge.
I’m Sweeney Todd the barber, And wicked thoughts I harbour, When I’ve got him in my chair, I’ll do more than cut his hair.
These lines, sung to a catchy tune played on a tinkling piano, and reminiscent of the ditties sung by The Two Ronnies, opened the theatre’s Rogues’ Gallery Season. If this sounds like a contradiction, then that is exactly what this upbeat production turned out to be.
First performed at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre in 1962, this version, by Brian J Burton, was adapted from George Dibden Pitt’s Victorian original, following Sweeney Todd’s first appearance in a nineteenth century penny dreadful. The story, called The String of Pearls or The Sailor’s Gift, was staged as a melodrama and, following the custom of the time, included ballads and amusing songs.
Such was the background to the first play of a new season. Part legend (in fourteenth century Paris, a barber reportedly cut the throats of his customers before disposing of his victims in an unconventional manner); part pantomime (the audience were urged to hiss and boo) and part docu-soap (the re-creation of the murderous deeds of a serial killer).
This was the first play ever to be staged as an integral part of the theatre’s main repertoire in which all the actors and technical crew were aged under eighteen, still attending local schools and members of SentreStage or the LTC youth group. Credit for taking this bold step goes to artistic director, Victoria Thompson, who then provided director, Matt Haynes, a trained actor and drama teacher, with the assistance of each head of department, Chris Weber Brown, stage manager, Trevor Morgan, lighting, Clive Vinall, sound and Joanne Cull, props.
Some period productions, striving for authenticity, clutter the stage with antiques but Dave Sharpe’s set, black from top to bottom, was minimalist. Scene changes too, despite representing a variety of venues, were undertaken unobtrusively and to the background of haunting melodies from that tinkling piano. Todd’s barber shop was on a raised platform with a ‘mechanical’ chair, loaned by the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with a lever which Todd, having cut the throats of his customers with a razor, would pull to tip them down into his cellar to be polished off.
The cast of sixteen young adults, who had been rehearsing every Saturday since January, were, by the third week in September, firing on all cylinders and became more assured with every performance. Fraser Goacher, as the villainous Todd, belied his youth in both acting ability and physical appearance, maintaining a chilling stage presence throughout until finally cutting his own throat and declaring, “There’s no-one as evil as me!” Alice Robinson as Mrs Lovett, maker of meat pies from the remains of Todd’s victims, displayed a range of acting and comic talent, not least in her duet with Todd, “Dear Mrs L, Dear Mr T”. Her scene with lecherous Dr. Lupin, a mature and confident William Brown, as they discussed pies and romance, including his “Wilt thou call me Loopy?”, was worthy of Monty Python.
Richard Gill was Mark Ingestre, the sailor and romantic hero who returns from sea with a string of pearls for his sweetheart, Johanna Oakley, charmingly played by Lorna Miller. Her singing of “Where Have You Gone?” was as poignant as Marie Lloyd’s “The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery”. Jo Thorpe and Sasha Harrington, as her parents, played their Oscar Wilde-ish characters with panache. Sam Clark, as jewellery dealer, Jean Parmine, who values the pearls before becoming another Todd victim, was suitably exotic, and Daniel Selby as Colonel Jeffrey, in monocle and top hat, maintained the atmosphere of old-time music-hall.
None of the cast had ever sung on stage before but their ability to synchronise with the specially arranged piano music off-stage was exemplary. ‘Miking-up’, however, should not be necessary in the intimate surroundings of Lewes Little Theatre. Voice projection might be next on the director’s priority list although the diction and enunciation of his young actors did much to enhance the deserved success of this landmark production. High fives all round!