at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff
“What did they do to you?” asks an appalled Mrs Lovett. Benjamin Barker has returned incognito from Botany Bay, and we share her concern. Les Cannon's Sweeney stares impassively from craggy, emotionless features. “His face was pale and his eye was odd ...”
He's not alone. The chorus stand in weird lighting – belting out the opening number rigidly looking straight ahead. Only their eyes turn to Sweeney.
Moments like these – the Bedlam scene is another – stand out in SODS' ambitious production of the Sondheim classic, directed by Ian Gilbert.
It's a show that asks a lot of everyone – soloists, chorus, orchestra, techies. And audience, still in their seats three hours after that opening chorale.
The score is demandingly operatic – it's often done by proper opera companies, in fact – and SODS' twenty-strong chorus, a few fluffs apart, does a remarkably professional job. Musical Direction by Elizabeth Dunlop.
Partners in crime Todd and Lovett are compellingly played by Les Cannon and Ashley-Marie Stone. His granite determination, her slatternly guile make an effective pair. His powerful Epiphany [chorus boldly placed to face upstage] is followed by the deliciously tasteless A Little Priest, both performed with flair and gruesome gusto.
Joining them in the dangerous streets of Victorian London is a fine company of singing actors: Scott Roche as the Beadle – superb at the harmonium – Declan Wright as the fresh-faced matelot, Maddy Lahna in excellent voice as his Johanna, Paul Alton mortifying the flesh as the evil Judge and Oliver Mills making a most promising SODS début as young Tobias – his Not While I'm Around with Lovett very touchingly put over, and an athletic turn in the Miracle Elixir sequence.
Occasionally we might wish for a better range, more sustained tone, but vocal shortcomings are usually made up for by the dramatic delivery, and the stunning staging.
The lofty set, with its staircases and its upper room, works well. After the interval, Mrs Lovett's new-found commercial success brings her a makeover, the signage is changed, and the new barber's chair is delivered. It looks damned awkward to manipulate, and the stunt razors don't always do as bloody a job as they might. But there are plenty of magnificent moments – Barker's wife in flashback, the Beggar Woman [Laura Mann] recognizing the room and remembering her baby girl, the pile of corpses, the bodies down the pit.
The sound design is bright, meaning that almost every word is audible, though at the expense of some light and shade. The lighting too, though brilliantly effective, could have been more subtle, with more gloomy corners to match the mood of the melodrama.
Despite one or two longueurs, this assured production is a Sweeney Todd to relish, for Sondheim's haunting score, the tale's black humour, and the brooding, burning presence of the Demon Barber.