Saturday, October 29, 2016


Derby Theatre and Colchester Mercury
at Colchester Mercury

Never have those strident organ chords sounded so menacing.
They herald a dark, powerful production from the Mercury's Artistic Director Daniel Buckroyd. Behind a grimy grey tarpaulin, Sara Perks' compact set waits for the action to begin. On the revolve, parlour, pie shop. bake-house and Sweeney's sinister salon, plus a lovely pageant cart for the street mountebank Pirelli. In the shadows beyond, inn signs to suggest the rest of Fleet Street. Outside in the foyer, the columns have barber-pole stripes, the ushers have aprons stained with gore ...
The cast of ten is supported by a local community chorus – they shine in the big scenes: the satisfied customers, the gibbering maniacs. This means that much of the other chorus work has a chamber feel – the quartet at the end of the first act, the trio after the first murder,
An impressive cast of principals, led by Sophie-Louise Dann's nervy, playful Mrs Lovett – clutching her cleaver as she hatches her new business plan - and Hugh Maynard's brooding, obsessive barber, his anger simmering beneath the surface and exploding in moments of terrifying rage. Kara Lane makes a strong beggar woman, Julian Hoult a reptilian Beadle. Outstanding singing and acting from David Durham as the corrupt Judge Turpin, and from Simon Shorten as Daniel O'Higgins, aka the fake Italian barber. The two young lovers, who pale slightly in the writing against all these grotesque villains, are engagingly played by Jack Wilcox and Christina Bennington. The boy Tobias is given a charming, ingenuous character by Ryan Heenan, and Daniel Buckley is Jonas Fogg, proprietor of the lunatic asylum. And, like most of the company, he's a versatile member of the ensemble.
Buckroyd's production is hard-hitting, uncompromising in its handling of the darker themes. But of course there is humour here too, notably from the eccentric Mrs L – the Little Priest number a show-stopping delight, as it invariably is.
Michael Haslam is the Musical Director, tucked away with his band in the upper darkness. Like those opening chords, the general tone is harsh and loud. Not all of Sondheim's clever, tricky lyrics were audible, though, and it was noticeable that one of Sweeney's most successful numbers was his tender hymn to his long-lost razors.
This was an uncut “musical thriller”; while it was good to have the – agonisingly realistic – tooth-pulling sequence, for instance, three hours, including interval, is a long time to concentrate on the complex lyrics and elaborate settings of Sondheim's operatic penny dreadful. Could do with just a little trim, perhaps.
Production photograph: Robert Day

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