Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court
Sondheim's Sweeney ? At the Old Court ? Mine certainly not the only eyebrow raised when the listing appeared.
But the production – CTW's first full musical for many a year – has proved a resounding success both financially and artistically.
Catherine Bailey's take on the show is necessarily spare and intimate. Exactly the way Christopher Bond's drama was done when it first caught Sondheim's eye. We enter past the harmonium and the man-size meat grinder waiting in the wings. The set – built in the auditorium to accommodate the notorious salon above the pie shop – is a grim Dickensian façade, with ghostly dustsheets above. The action begins with a sombre procession, before Toby draws us in to the story.
A damaged child, huddled in a strait-jacket. Tobias Ragg is often a young boy in the melodrama, much less often in the musical, since for him, as for all the principals, the writing is a real challenge. Charlie Borg makes an excellent job of it – comedy and tragedy alike: his last appearance, hollow-eyed and grey-haired, sets the tone for the emotional finale.
No surprise to see the excellent David Slater nail the title role, a riveting performance which makes the character human in his deranged passion, and effortlessly navigates Sondheim's melodic lines. But a revelation to hear CTW regulars revealed as fine vocalists: Dave Hawkes as the “abominable judge”, Chris Edwards as the revolting Beadle. And Debbie Miles as a memorable Mrs Lovett, holding her own with Slater in the duets, with excellent comic timing as well as hidden depths in, say, Nothing's Going To Harm You. By The Sea is superb, with a grumpy Todd and a fetching pair of bathing belles.
Tom Tull's fine voice as Antony, blends operatically with Jade Flack's tragic Johanna. No operatic fireworks from Harry Sabbarton's Pirelli, alas, but a sprechgesang approach which works surprisingly well.
The chorus copes superbly with the challenges of the score – good to see figures slumped at the end of the alley, and the constant presence of the heap of rags concealing Marie McNulty's beggarwoman. Though more sensitive, oblique lighting might help her melt into the shadows. The uplighting for the barber shop is very effective, however.
I've seen many Sweeneys but the powerful intimacy of this version is something special. And, at the end, after the bloodbath and the curtain call, the Stage Manager rushes on to wipe the gore from the Fleet Street floor lest the Demon Barber claim another victim ...