Sex and Violence

Here, for your entertainment, is a list of things I learned this week at the Royal Exchange Theatre‘s compelling new modern-dress (ish) production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd.

(Yes, bullet points. I mean, really – I’ve written two full-length prose reviews of major productions of Sweeney Todd in the past couple of years, and I don’t think the world is going to end if I duck out of writing a third. If you’re not familiar with the plot, check Wikipedia; if you’re lucky enough to have missed the movie, try to keep it that way.)

Anyway. So.

  • We’re not in Victorian England anymore, although we are still in London – possibly a little further east than where Fleet Street really is, but never mind. This production is set very firmly at the dog-end of the 1970s, in the earliest days of Thatcher’s reign of terror, and the shift in period works beautifully (although news of it has been greeted in a couple of online forums by hysterically overdone pearl-clutching fainting fits from people who, naturally, didn’t bother to see it for themselves before rushing to condemn it. Aren’t fans wonderful?). No, we didn’t transport convicts in the 1960s, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest; Sondheim and Wheeler’s picture of Victorian London is not documentary-accurate, and the story of a man who experiences monstrous inhumanity and wreaks a terrible revenge for it fits very well indeed with the casual cruelty (and, in the second half, the naked capitalism) of the early Thatcher years. And of course there’s no reason this material shouldn’t be moved out of the 1840s – if we can have modern-dress Shakespeare or Molière or Sheridan, we can have a (nearly) modern-dress Sweeney Todd too, as long as it isn’t simply done as a gimmick. And in this case, it certainly isn’t merely being done as a gimmick.

  • The Royal Exchange is a wonderful, wonderful place to see a play, but from a director’s point of view it’s also a startlingly inflexible space. It’s a theatre-in-the-round that can only be a theatre-in-the -round, all entrances and exits (at stage level, at least) have to be made via vomitoriums that pass several rows of seats, and every single exit from the stage leads directly into the theatre’s lobby area. This production – and knowing the Exchange’s idiosyncracies, this rings all kinds of alarm bells – is a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a very different kind of space (for a start, it has walls, wings, and a backstage area that is not on full public view). The best compliment I can pay director James Brining (and his set and lighting designers, Colin Richmond and Chris Davey) is that you’d never guess the production was not conceived solely for this space.

  • The great benefit of seeing it at the Exchange: this is as up-close-and-personal a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever see. It unfolds right in front of you, you can see the whites (reds?) of the actors’ eyes, and at least one of the murders takes place more or less in the audience’s laps. Other productions – including last year’s dazzling West End revival – have delivered more spectacle, more Grand Guignol grandeur, more sheer size; this one succeeds by taking the show’s subtitle – ‘A Musical Thriller’ – and running with it, except the thrillers it invokes are more Guy Ritchie than Victorian penny dreadful. Some stagings stylise or downplay the show’s violence, but this one doesn’t:, this is a jagged, angry, thoroughly chilling take on the material, and it’s utterly riveting.

  • There’s a lot of blood. I mean a lot of blood. In the final scene, the actor playing Tobias is more or less covered in it from head to foot (which makes perfect sense, given where Tobias has been). Given how lavishly the blood gushes in this production, they do a remarkably good job of keeping it off the floor.

  • There’s also a lot of sex. Well, compared to other productions, anyway. Moving the setting forward to the late 1970s has the effect of bringing the piece’s sexual subtext – which has always been present – much, much closer to the surface. ‘A Little Priest’, here, becomes an extended mating dance that verges on foreplay (the line “then blow on it first” has almost certainly never been dirtier than it is in this production), and that is very clearly going to end with Todd and Mrs. Lovett doing it on top of the banquette that hides Pirelli’s body. And it’s not just Todd and Mrs. Lovett who are at it like knives, either. Johanna may be virginal the first time we see her, but she certainly isn’t by the end of the first act. When she and Anthony sing ‘Kiss Me’ – on a bed – it involves full-on snogging, and the staging of the end of the number makes it obvious that they aren’t going to stop there.  And actually, seeing this subtext writ large is illuminating – this revival offers a genuinely fresh look at these characters and their relationships, and that’s largely because it’s set in a time in which people were far less physically inhibited than they were in Victorian England.

  • And that’s not just about naughty touching. Johanna’s relationship with Judge Turpin has possibly never been as disturbing as it is here. The sexual abuse of minors by authority figures has been much in the news in Britain over the past couple of years; in this production, Judge Turpin gropes Johanna’s breast, and it’s a thoroughly uncomfortable moment – as, of course, it should be. The danger Johanna faces if she doesn’t make her escape is shockingly clear.

  • Despite the shift in period, this production does not cut or change a word of the book or score. Indeed, here, you get all of it – the tooth-pulling sequence, the Judge’s ‘Johanna’, and the Beggar Woman’s full lullaby.

  • However, the first music you hear when the lights go down is not the organ prelude, it’s a scratchy recording of The Carpenters’ ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’. It’s both jarring and intensely creepy, and it works.

  • This is very much an ensemble show rather than a star vehicle; that said, all of the performances are terrific. And for once, in a British musical revival, everybody in this cast can sing. The singing, in fact, is unimpeachable, and often thrilling. David Birrell and Gillian Bevan do especially fine work as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. He’s slowly being consumed – to the point of madness – by an awful combination of rage and grief (the poster blurb actually describes the show as “a musical thriller about a man driven mad by injustice”, and that angle has possibly never been clearer than it is in Birrell’s performance). Birrell offers, in places, a startlingly quiet interpretation of the role, which makes his occasional explosions all the scarier. His ‘Epiphany’ is genuinely threatening, and not simply because it’s staged far closer to the audience than it would be in a more conventional theatre. He’s matched by Gillian Bevan’s wiry, wily opportunist of a Mrs. Lovett. Bevan plays down the warmth and the laughs in places (the out-and-out music hall turn Angela Lansbury offered in the original Broadway production just would not work in this setting); the plot is driven, here, as much by her (dare I say Thatcherite?) determination to improve her status as by Sweeney’s thirst for revenge, and this Mrs. Lovett, when she wants to be, can be a very scary lady. Bevan also offers as exciting a vocal account of the role as I’ve ever heard, belting notes in ‘The Worst Pies In London’ that pretty much everyone else I’ve ever heard has taken in head voice. But then, every single performance in this production is remarkably fresh, and every single actor finds something in their role that hasn’t been seen in previous productions.

  • There’s a seven-piece band perched in the first circle above the stage. Yes, more players would be nice (but good luck finding space for them in the Exchange), and no, they’re not playing a version of the smaller orchestration Jonathan Tunick did for the National Theatre production. We also, thank God, don’t have any actors playing instruments onstage (well, apart from where indicated by the script and in the organ prologue, which is played onstage by a member of the ensemble), and musical supervisor David Shrubsole actually owns up to his new orchestrations in the programme. They’re perhaps a little keyboard-heavy, but I’ve heard far worse.

  • There are some nice little details in the direction. When Mrs. Lovett offers Todd a ‘bonbon’ in the second half, it comes out of a prescription bottle, which makes sense – his rage is such that of course he’d resort to chemical assistance to keep himself under control. And her bourgeoise fantasies in ‘By The Sea’ are illustrated by a copy of Ideal Home Magazine that she tries to show Sweeney as he watches TV. In the first act, the bird-seller’s birds are origami cranes made from newspaper, and they’re surprisingly lovely.

  • Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has the filthiest fridge you’ve ever seen, and when Todd spits out the mouthful of pie at the end of ‘The Worst Pies in London’, she puts the half-chewed mess back in the bowl of uncooked pie filling on the counter. It’s totally gross – but of course, that’s what she’d do.

There are some (excellent) production photos here; the production runs another two weeks, and day seats are available every morning. It’s not the grandest Sweeney Todd you’ll ever see, or the most musically lush, or the funniest – but it may be the creepiest, it’s certainly different, and it grabs hold of you as the lights go down and never lets you go. It’s a gripping, startling piece of theatre, and it offers a new and genuinely surprising reassessment at a piece that, to me at least, has become a little bit over-familiar. The production is apparently Brining’s first as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and also, according to the programme, heralds the start of a “creative partnership” between the Playhouse and the Exchange. If this production is an indication of the level of work that’s coming, that’s very exciting news indeed.

It’s still backwards.

A little over twenty years ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along for the first time – the Leicester Haymarket production, directed by Paul Kerryson and starring Michael Cantwell, Evan Pappas, and Maria Friedman. Back then, I was roughly the same age the three central characters are at the end of the show. This weekend, I’ve seen the Menier Chocolate Factory‘s exceptionally fine new revival, which is also Friedman’s professional debut as a director (she had previously directed a student production at the Central School of Speech and Drama). Now, I’m roughly the same age the three central characters are in the opening scene. Yes, it’s still backwards – but it has possibly never worked as well as it does here.

This is, of course, a show with a famously chequered history. The original Broadway production, in 1981, played more than three times as many previews as performances; during previews, the choreographer and the leading man were both replaced, and all the original costumes were thrown out, so that the show opened with the actors wearing coloured sweatshirts emblazoned with their characters’ names. It was a catastrophic flop, but it yielded a cast recording (recorded the day after the show closed); that recording reveals a score that, while patchy, is sometimes glorious, and that contains some of Sondheim’s most exuberant music.

Sondheim and Furth subsequently made several significant cuts and changes to the show, culminating in the 1992 and 1993 revivals in Leicester and off-Broadway, both of which were recorded. The Leicester production – I saw it twice – made a good case for the show as a problematic but playable piece that, while not perfect, was better than its reputation, despite a book by Furth that is never quite as penetrating or as witty as it thinks it is. It also had good performances from Michael Cantwell and Evan Pappas, and a phenomenal one from Maria Friedman as Mary Flynn, the novelist and critic whose unrequited love for her best friend drives her to alcoholism. That production, too, yielded a cast recording – almost unheard-of from a British regional production that didn’t transfer to London – and while it, like the show itself, is not perfect (not all the performances come across as well on the recording as they did in the theatre, and the percussion is far too high in the mix, and sounds like it’s being played by a Muppet on meth), I’ve listened to it a lot over the past twenty years.

And now it’s been revived again (there was a 2000 revival at the Donmar Warehouse; I was living abroad at the time, so I missed it). This time around, although the script is essentially the same as the one used twenty-one years ago in Leicester, the surprise is the extent to which Friedman and her brilliant cast have made the piece’s inherent difficulties disappear. This is possibly as good a production of the show as you will ever see.

Merrily, at heart, is a show about friendship gone wrong. Sondheim and Furth follow twenty years in the lives of Franklin Shepherd (a composer who sells out to Hollywood), Charley Kringas (a would-be playwright and Frank’s lyricist) and their friend Mary Flynn (a novelist and critic who carries a secret torch for Frank). We first meet them – Frank and Mary in the first scene, Charley in the second – in bitter, alienated middle age; as the show progresses, we slowly go back in time towards the night of Frank and Charley’s first meeting with Mary, and we gradually get to see how the friendship between the three grew and waned, and how Frank and Charley’s writing partnership went off the rails.

The reverse chronology makes it a formidably difficult show to cast; the original production used fresh-out-of-college twenty-year-olds, who by all accounts were not at all successful in the brittle, angry early scenes in Act One. Friedman goes in the opposite direction; she’s cast actors who read at the upper end of the play’s age range, and as the performance progresses they have to gradually age down in front of the audience. Not at all an easy thing to do, particularly in a tiny theatre, but this cast manage it triumphantly – in the final scene, you never, even for a moment, feel you’re watching adults playing kids. Friedman uses a simple framing device (the graduation scenes that originally framed the action are cut from the version of the show that’s now standard) . At the top of the show, as the title song begins, Frank is alone onstage holding what looks like a script; the script turns out to be the two one-act plays Charley wrote in college, and the final image is Frank, costumed as he was in the opening scene, holding the same script. Essentially, then, the show is middle-aged Frank trying to work out where his life went wrong.

To that end, the opening Hollywood party scene is brutal. Mark Umbers’s Frank is clearly not riding the crest of a wave. He’s stretched to breaking-point and full of self-loathing, even as he smiles for his guests; when he finally explodes at Jenna Russell’s Mary, it’s because her barbs have hit him where it hurts. Russell, for her part, makes Mary a truly mean drunk, but you see and feel the genuine hurt underneath her bitterness (it helps, too, that Russell is one of those people who can get a laugh and break your heart on the same beat). In the following scene, Damian Humbley, as Charley, delivers ‘Franklin Shepherd, Inc.’ with devastating force.  It’s a diatribe that clearly comes from years of frustration, and it’s riveting. Throughout the show, Friedman and her cast do an exceptional job of locating the emotional undercurrents between this central trio; even in the very, very bitter opening scenes, you see flashes of their charm, and all three are absolutely compelling. As the show progresses, their charm only increases – ‘Bobby and Jackie and Jack’, which is far from the best thing in the score, gets probably as good a performance as it’s ever had, helped by a wagonload of props and Tim Jackson’s clever choreography – and the final scene is very moving indeed. Their singing, too, is impeccable; in these hands, the glorious ‘Our Time’ soars. These are three phenomenal singing actors, and they’re all giving phenomenal performances.

The good news doesn’t end there. Glyn Kerslake is drily funny as producer Joe Josephson (a role that was played by Jason Alexander, later of ‘Seinfeld’ fame, in the original Broadway production), and Josefina Gabrielle makes man-eating Broadway star Gussie, Frank’s second wife, into a more fascinating figure than you’d ever guess was possible from the script – sexy, materialistic, ambitious, calculating, and far more intelligent than she lets on. She’s matched by Clare Foster’s Beth, who finds all the hurt in ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – in lesser hands, one of Sondheim’s most overly lugubrious ballads – in Act One, and is quietly radiant in the second half. Friedman knows the show backwards (forwards?), and she’s treated it, essentially, as an extended character study; the performances supply most of what’s missing in the book (which, even in this revised version, is not Furth’s best work), and the emotional payoff at the end is substantial. The tiny venue (and stage) helps; you can see into the actors’ eyes, and the intimacy really works for the show.

It’s not quite a perfect production. David Hersey’s lighting is terrific, but while Soutra Gilmour’s unit set – a ‘Mad Men’-era interior whose window opens onto either a swimming pool or the Manhattan skyline – is fine in the opening scenes, it’s too clean a space for the later ones. Her costumes, though, do an excellent job of keeping us aware of when we are in each scene. And giving the final transitional reprise of the title song to the kid playing Frank Jr. is a step too far – it doesn’t really work, although Noah Miller, the child at the performance I saw, was perfectly charming and sang it nicely. There are some rookie mistakes in the blocking – whatever the configuration, the Menier is a tricky space, but a little more attention should have been paid to sightlines.  And while the nine-piece band, under the direction of Catherine Jayes, are terrific, I wish they hadn’t cut about half the overture.

Those quibbles aside, though, this production is a major achievement, and – for Friedman – an astounding directorial debut, despite a couple of caveats. Without resorting to flashy staging flourishes, she’s taken a very, very difficult show – one which has never entirely worked in any previous incarnation – and she’s delivered a reading of it that probes deeper into the material’s heart than you would imagine possible. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

The Michael ‘n’ Imelda Show – now with extra blood!

I’m a little suspicious of standing ovations at the theatre, particularly at big, expensive musicals. I’ve sometimes come away with a sneaking suspicion that there has been something a little mechanical about the way an audience has leapt to its feet during the curtain call, that standing to applaud becomes a way of justifying the expenditure on an expensive ticket, even if what you’ve just seen hasn’t been particularly good. It feels a little silly, particularly if just a few clumps of people stand while everyone else remains seated. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who stays sitting down if I don’t feel that what I’ve just seen is worth any kind of special gesture; to me, a standing ovation is something that’s reserved for when what you’ve just seen is so good, so extraordinary, that ordinary applause isn’t enough. Shows like that, unfortunately, don’t come around very often.

I say this now because I saw Saturday’s matinée of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd  at the Adelphi Theatre, and I haven’t seen a standing ovation like the one that happened at the curtain call in a very, very long time. This wasn’t just a few isolated groups of people half-heartedly standing because that’s just what you do; the entire audience stood, as far as I could see – yes, me too – and not only did they stand and applaud, they cheered, and pretty much everyone was standing and cheering before Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, the production’s above-the-title stars, came out to take their bows. Their applause could have been measured using the Richter scale, and both they and the production deserved it. I’ve already gushed over one musical revival this week, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to gush over another.

There’s a sound you don’t hear very often when you’re in a large theatre watching a big musical: silence.  Audiences these days are often not particularly attentive. They fidget, whisper, rattle sweet wrappers, eat, play around with cellphones. There was none of that here. When everyone in an audience is completely caught up in what’s happening on stage, something magical happens. You can feel it in this production when the music cuts out and there’s a pause – it’s as if the entire audience is collectively holding their breath. Jonathan Kent, this revival’s director, has achieved something remarkable. He’s taken a show that, yes, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, that any musical theatre geek over the age of thirty will have seen at least half-a-dozen times, whose original Broadway production, in its touring incarnation, was preserved on DVD, and that has been revived in London three times within the past twelve years, and he’s delivered a production that quietly, without grandstanding, makes you see every second of a very, very familiar piece of material as if it were completely fresh.

The first clue that this is not a standard-issue Sweeney Todd is Anthony Ward’s set. Like Harold Prince’s original Broadway (and London) production, the show is set in industrial London, but here we’re in the 1930s rather than the mid-nineteenth century. The show takes place in a vast, run-down, semicircular metal-framed workhouse, with dizzyingly steep staircases that lead to a vertiginous catwalk that circles the top of the stage. The costumes, with a couple of exceptions, are everyday period street clothes, Mark Henderson’s lighting is shadowy and sinister, and aside from a couple of visual flourishes – Pirelli’s market stall is a Piaggio three-wheeler van, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has a neon sign in the second act, and Todd’s shiny new Act Two barber’s chair is upholstered in red leatherette – the look is depression-era drab. There’s a pre-show sequence in which the ensemble are onstage working – scrubbing the floor, moving sacks, doing something you can’t quite see with metal bars behind the upper-level window-frames – which leads to Kent’s first directorial masterstroke: when the show begins, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ is presented as the inmates/workers in this workhouse/factory/whatever it is telling each other the story of Sweeney Todd, for their own amusement. I’ve never seen it staged quite that way before, and it makes rather more dramatic sense than an ensemble of actors somewhat portentously directing the song at the audience. This refocused opening grabs your attention, and Kent and his cast run with it. This Sweeney Todd, more than any other I’ve seen, is a thrilling, chilling roller-coaster ride on which the tension never lets up, even for a moment.

Part of what’s startling about this production’s opening sequence, I have to say, is the presence on stage of a large cast. The original production, by all accounts, was immense, but it’s a show that can be done small, and often is; of the previous productions I’ve seen, I think the largest used 16 actors and the smallest just 11. Here, there are 26, along with a band of 15 in the pit (the very assured musical direction is by Nicholas Skilbeck), which means that none of the actors have to play the trumpet when they’re not in a scene. The ensemble performances are terrific; each member of this cast has clearly done a great deal of detailed character work, the ensemble singing is very, very strong indeed, and they sock ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ across the footlights with a grim, sardonic intensity that catches you slightly by surprise. It’s an opening number that always works, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as it does here.

Good as the opening is, though, it only hints at what to come, because this production’s real thrills begin with the entrance of the two leads. On paper, I have to say, Michael Ball would not have been my first choice for Sweeney Todd. At the start of his career, he was a likeable but rather bland romantic leading man (with, admittedly, a very, very strong voice); he was perfectly OK in The Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love, and Sondheim’s Passion, and he sang all three roles very, very well, but he wasn’t particularly exciting or distinctive, and his concert work, frankly, is the musical equivalent of swimming through a bath of melted processed cheese. He was a major surprise in the British production of Hairspray, in which he was cast way against type as Edna Turnblad (he played the role in London and on tour), but it’s a long way from Edna Turnblad to Sweeney Todd. And yet here he is, nearly unrecognisable in a slicked-back brown wig, staring down the audience and delivering a performance that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not simply that this is the best work of his career so far, although it certainly is: this performance is so far ahead of everything else I’ve ever seen him do – including his Edna Turnblad, which was also spectacularly good – that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I wouldn’t have believed him capable of it. He’s giving as good a leading performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere, in a play or in a musical. He charts Sweeney’s descent into madness deliberately and carefully, so that his ‘Epiphany’ is a genuine explosion; his is a lighter voice than is often cast as Sweeney, and he saves the fireworks for a few key moments, but the power is there, and when he unleashes it, he’s terrifying. There’s far more to this performance than explosive power, though. In some ways, he’s most impressive in his quietest moments. The range of emotions he wrings out of his very low-key delivery of his part of the ‘Johanna’ quartet in Act Two is extraordinary. He’s fierce, brooding, desperately sad, threatening, demented, and a ticking timebomb, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is equally good, and in some ways equally surprising. She’s dabbled in Sondheim before – she was brilliant as the Baker’s Wife in the first London staging of Into the Woods, but her last musical was Guys and Dolls in 1997, and her achievements since have eclipsed her earlier work in musicals to the point where it’s easy to forget that she can sing. Truthfully, better singers than her have played the role – she has a pleasant voice, but she’s no Julia McKenzie – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone find quite the range of colours in it that she does. She’s one of Britain’s best comic actresses, of course, and she nails all of the laughs in the script, with a few on top for good measure – one of her reactions during the Parlour Songs sequence gets a laugh that stops the show cold for a good twenty seconds – but she’s delivering far more than simple comic relief. Beat by beat, syllable by syllable, she presents Mrs. Lovett in extraordinary detail. Her Mrs. Lovett, yes, is a backstreet pragmatist, but she’s also – at least in the later scenes – possibly a psychopath, and sexually aroused not only by Sweeney himself, but by blood and the possibility of violence. When, relatively early in the show, Sweeney sings ‘My Friends’ to his collection of cut-throat razors, she gives off such palpable sexual heat that you half expect her to have to wring out her knickers at the end of the number, and her shrieks of horror when she discovers Pirelli’s body in the trunk very quickly become almost orgasmic. When she watches Sweeney explode into madness in ‘Epiphany’, she’s simultaneously horrified and absolutely thrilled. She’s the true villain of the piece, but she’s garrulous and charming, and her affection for Tobias is totally genuine – the stricken look on her face during the scene surrounding ‘Not While I’m Around’ when she realises she’s going to have to murder him to stop him from exposing the secret behind her pie shop is perhaps the production’s most thoroughly chilling moment. This, too, is as good a performance as I have ever seen anywhere in pushing thirty years of regular theatregoing.

It’s not just that Ball and Staunton are individually great, either – they play off each other beautifully, and their ‘A Little Priest’ is dazzling even if you know all of the groaners in the lyrics off by heart. And they are matched by a very fine set of supporting performances. Nobody in this cast is less than very good; Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford is magnificent. The last twenty minutes of the show are absolutely electrifying, even though a good proportion of the audience must know exactly what is coming next. I said at the beginning that the audience response was like nothing I’ve seen in a long, long time; it was entirely deserved. This is one of those rare theatrical events where you run the risk of running out of superlatives.

And yes, in case you were wondering, there is blood. Quite a lot of blood, in fact – there’s no faking it by bathing the stage in red light here. When a throat gets slit, the blood spurts. And spurts. It’s impressively gory, particularly towards the end of Act Two when the bodies start to pile up – not as gory as the (misguided and ineffective) film, but it’s about fifty times more chilling. Not to mention orders of magnitude funnier – and, unlike the film, the laughs here are all intentional.

Complaints? Only two. One, the production has yielded a cast recording. If it doesn’t quite convey how marvellous the show is in the theatre, it’s still a very worthwhile, hugely entertaining listen, but unfortunately it’s a single-disc highlights set, and this production is so good that a more complete recording would have been nice. Two, the toilets in the Adelphi are awful, and there aren’t enough of them. The queues for both the ladies and the gents at the interval stretched out of the bathrooms like bread queues in Soviet-era Russia, and the three (just three) urinals in the gents are so close together that you touch shoulders with the person next to you as you attempt to go about your business. In this day and age, the facilities are totally inadequate.

So… yes. This is possibly as good a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever hope to see. It’s playing a limited run of six months, and it can’t extend at the Adelphi because the theatre has another booking in the autumn. The reviews have been so strong that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the production subsequently went on to have another life somewhere else, but don’t count on it: if you love musical theatre, and particularly if you love Sondheim, this is something that’s worth making a considerable effort to see. And since I’ve already seen it, you will at least be spared the unfortunate spectacle of me sitting with my mouth hanging open for two hours and fifty minutes.

Just, when you see it, make sure you use the bathroom somewhere else first. Really. You’ll thank me.

Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Heeeeere’s ROSE!

YES, before we go any further, I enjoyed Caroline O’Connor‘s performance as Rose in Gypsy. I enjoyed it quite a lot. I enjoyed it so much that I may have to become the founder of some kind of religion devoted to her worship. It’s a tedious nuisance – I’m quite busy this week, and I could really do without the hassle – but it seems, on the evidence of this afternoon, that Ms. O’Connor is some kind of musical theatre goddess, so sacrifices may have to be made. Don’t worry, the lamb is safe… although, suspiciously, it does not appear in Act Two.

I should also say upfront that – and I know I’m not alone in this – I think Gypsy is one of the two or three very best golden-era American musicals. It has a tight, taut book by Arthur Laurents that tells a gripping (and surprisingly dark) story with commendable wit and economy, the book is matched by a peerless score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, the role of Rose, the show’s central character, is very possibly the closest anyone has come to creating a Twentieth Century King Lear, and the first four notes of the stunning overture could possibly bring a corpse back to life.  As a piece of writing, it is, as they say, a total wow, not to mention a hell of a challenge for any actor or director who chooses to take it on – but unless a director really screws it up, I’m probably going to like at least some things about any production.

Gypsy is, of course, a based-on-a-true-story depression-era backstage musical, in which Rose, a steamroller of a stage mother, pushes her daughters onstage in a series of awful vaudeville acts in the desperate hope that one of them will get the opportunity to become a star that had eluded her in her own childhood. When the older daughter, June, abandons both the act and her family to run away to try to make a name for herself as a legitimate actress (and, oh yes, marry a chorus boy), Rose fixes her attention on Louise, the younger sister, whose relative lack of talent had, until that point, kept her firmly in the background. Rose avows her intention to make Louise a star; when the vaudeville circuit collapses and the act, out of financial desperation, accepts a booking in a house of burlesque, a chain of events is set in motion that culminates in Louise becoming the world-famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Facing abandonment by a second daughter, Rose undergoes what more or less amounts to a nervous breakdown when she begins to see that she’s pushed her children (and lover) away by projecting her own ambitions onto them. We’re not exactly in happy showbiz land; if they’re done right, the last three scenes in Act Two are simultaneously electrifying and desperately moving.

Unfortunately, on this side of the Atlantic, it doesn’t seem to get done very often, perhaps partly because that central role is so challenging – and partly because, great as it is, it covers some quite difficult emotional territory and it’s never been that big a hit, although it seems to get revived on Broadway about every ten minutes. The last time I saw it on this side of the Atlantic was eighteen years ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a production starring the great Sheila Hancock, who should have been dynamite but wasn’t, mostly because of misdirection. It’s on the relatively short list of plays that I would travel pretty much anywhere to see (although I missed the last Broadway revival), I own copies of all four major cast recordings, and I can pretty much recite big chunks of the script. I love it so much, I voluntarily parted with my own money in order to see a production of it starring Bernadette Peters, something I swore I’d never do again after the lazy, disconnected horror of a performance she perpetrated the night I saw The Goodbye Girl (Bernadette, honey: if a thousand-odd people have all forked over cash in order to watch you perform, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is look as if you actually want to be there, rather than spending the entire evening mumbling your lines, refusing to maintain eye contact with any of your fellow performers, and generally wafting around the stage like a sloth on Mogadon). To me, in short, getting to see pretty much any production of this show counts as an Event.

And this production – at Curve in Leicester, a convenient more-than-three-hours-with-at-least-two-changes train journey from where I live – is worth getting excited about. It’s directed by Paul Kerryson, the theatre’s artistic director, whose British productions of American musicals have been consistently impressive (his UK premiere production of The Light in the Piazza was absolutely gorgeous, and – going back a lot further – his stagings of Chicago, Company and Sweeney Todd at the Oldham Coliseum were major factors in the process that turned my more-than-passing adolescent interest in musical theatre into the terrifying geek streak that threatens to rule my life), and it gives as good an account of the show as you could ever hope to see, even given that the resources available are necessarily limited compared to the scale of production you’d expect to find on Broadway or in the West End.

Fortunately, because the show is set a) in the depression and b) mostly backstage in run-down theatres, it doesn’t require a great deal of candy-wrapping, or a particularly opulent set. Here, we open on a bare stage that’s illuminated only by a ghost light; Sara Perks’s clever set consists largely of a drop curtain and flown black-and-white billboards showing depression-era advertisements; this is a road story as well as a backstage musical, and the different locations are indicated by changing the adverts that are projected on the billboards, and the largest billboard is big enough that scenes can be performed ‘in one’, in front of it. The front five rows of seats have been removed, enabling a runway to be constructed around the orchestra pit. Aside from  a few flats with doors, furniture as needed, and the sets for the diegetic vaudeville and burlesque numbers, that’s pretty much it; sensitively lit by Philip Gladwell, it’s simple and evocative, and it works beautifully.

On this set, we have possibly the hardest-working cast in British Equity. The adult roles are divided between just thirteen actors (there’s a team of children for the kiddie numbers in Act One, obviously); outside of the four lead roles, that means that nine actors play, well, everybody, with frequent changes of costumes and wigs. Because I didn’t read the programme before the show started, it wasn’t until the curtain call that I realised just how few people I’d been watching, and they deliver the show with such conviction and style that the few shortcomings – the acting from the ensemble is often better than the singing, and Jason Winter’s Tulsa struggles with the higher notes in ‘All I Need is the Girl’ and could really do with having the song dropped a couple of steps – are pretty much irrelevant. The kids are terrific, with particularly sharp work from Hollie Pugh as the younger Louise, and the kiddie-show numbers are appropriately and hilariously ghastly.

The leads are even better. David Fleeshman’s Herbie (Rose’s lover and the act’s agent) and Daisy Maywood’s Dainty June are both flawless, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt finds every single shade in Louise’s gradual transformation from ugly duckling into imperious star. But the evening belongs to Caroline O’Connor’s Rose. She’s charming, monstrous, iron-lunged, sexy, a force of nature; when she tears into ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ at the end of Act One, she’s terrifying (Hamilton-Barritt’s Louise actually seems to shrink in fear as she watches), and in ‘Rose’s Turn’, her breakdown at the climax of Act Two, the devastating force of her performance pins you back in your seat. The final scene between Rose and Louise, here, is heartbreaking; this is a star turn in the truest sense, absolutely compelling, and as good as any leading performance I’ve ever seen, and she’s matched at every step by her co-stars. And fans of the score will be relieved to learn that, unlike Ms. Patti LuPone, Ms. O’Connor manages to deliver the big final note at the end of ‘Rose’s Turn’ without emitting a noise that resembles the sound a Dyson makes when you accidentally run it over a plastic bag.

Do I have any quibbles? Yes, a couple. While I loved the set, there were a couple of places, particularly in the strip montage in Act Two, where the transitions really needed to happen a little bit more quickly in order to maintain the momentum of the performance. And while I have no right to expect to hear the full original orchestrations in a regional theatre production that must have been put up on a relatively tight budget, I do miss the original orchestrations. Here we have a band of ten (four reeds, two trumpets, trombone, bass, percussion and piano); the reduced orchestration (uncredited in the programme, but I seem to recall hearing a mention in an interview or on a podcast that it’s by Julian Kelly, who has worked with Kerryson several times before) is very sensitively done, and Michael Haslam’s musical direction, like nearly everything else, is flawless… but the sound of the full orchestration is missed, particularly in the overture.

Despite those (minor) quibbles, though, this is, quite simply, as good a regional production of a musical as I ever hope to see. Even with the reduced orchestrations, smaller budget, and smaller cast, it stands head and shoulders above the revival I saw on Broadway.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and start building a shrine.

Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, the sharpest, funniest account of the karate scene I’ve ever seen (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes…

A good production of Company, to me, is a really big deal. The first staging of it I saw, at the Oldham Coliseum in 1990, is probably as responsible as anything else for transforming a passing interest in musical theatre into the mile-wide, fathoms-deep geek streak that sometimes threatens to eat my life. Like any other musical theatre geek (I typed ‘Sondheim geek’, then changed it, because as much as I love Sondheim, those people scare me) I can pick holes in it here and there, but it’s a play that had a huge impact on me, and I’ll travel pretty much any distance to see a good production.

Today, I saw a really, really good production. I didn’t even have to travel all that far. In what can be viewed as either an admirably brave or a wilfully perverse piece of programming, the Sheffield Crucible is offering Company as their Christmas musical. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a selling point – I have a fairly limited tolerance for enforced Christmas festivity (apart from on the day itself), and I think I passed my limit about three weeks ago – but they’d more or less certainly be taking more money if they were offering a show that was a little more family-friendly. There was a healthy audience at today’s matinee – probably 75% of capacity, and the Crucible seats 980, which is large for a British regional rep – but it’s December, and with a kid-friendly show they could do even better. Company is anything but kid-friendly. An unmarried man – Robert – either experiences or recalls scenes with five married couples who are his friends, as well as three girlfriends, and questions whether he’s ready to commit himself to marriage. There are episodes but no plot, the songs mostly function as commentary on the dialogue scenes, and the show’s tone is sharply funny and forensically cold. It’s not exactly Guys and Dolls, and your average eight-year-old would be bored shitless.

While it might be an odd choice for the season, though, the Crucible has done a remarkable job of it: this is probably as good a production of Company as you’re ever likely to see. The performances – all of them – are spot-on, with admirably detailed character work from every single member of the cast. Christopher Oram’s set locates the show in a downtown Manhattan loft apartment with a sunken living room  and a glittering view of the Midtown skyline, including the Chrysler Building (in the bed scene with Robert and April in Act Two, Oram gives us a big laugh when Robert presses a button on the wall, and his bed immediately slides from the back to the centre of the stage). Lynne Page’s carefully artless choreography often positions Robert almost as his friends’ prey – they chase him around the four corners of the large thrust stage, pass him from couple to couple like a parcel, block him, and prevent him from leaving the stage. It’s a bold idea, it works beautifully, and her ‘Side by Side by Side’ packs more character information and subtext into seven minutes of musical staging than you would ever think possible.

The director is Jonathan Munby; this is his first musical, and it’s impeccable. He clearly gets that this is a musical that’s as much about a city as a group of people – aside from that glitzy skyline backdrop, the sounds of the city are present all the way through the show, and you’re always aware of New York City as both a fifteenth character and a distinct presence – but his biggest success is in balancing the (many) laughs in the book scenes and the songs with the crippling fear and loneliness that lurk just underneath. This Company is very funny, but also very unsettling: these people keep their insecurities very near the surface, and Munby’s production treads a very, very careful line between urbane  comedy and black despair. The laughs are there – all of them – but some of them are quite uncomfortable.

And then there’s Daniel Evans – the Crucible’s current artistic director – as Robert. Evans, of course, is a Sondheim veteran by now, and he’s giving a spectacular performance here. Robert, in this production, is onstage for pretty much the entire show; he’s centre-stage, and the production revolves around him. The key to Evans’ performance, in fact, lies in the moments between the scenes – there are no blackouts, he’s always visible, but he’s only ever alone in the breaks between scenes, and this allows him to show us a Robert who knows from the beginning that he’s in desperate trouble. Evans’ Robert isn’t a bland cipher. He’s a lonely, charming man who uses the companionship of his friends and girlfriends to distract himself from a mounting sense of depression that stems from his absolute terror of being alone. In the book scenes, he’s bright and cheerful; in the spaces between the scenes, though, the mask slips. It’s an approach that’s certainly supported by the script, although I’ve never seen anyone else play it quite this way before, and it’s an approach that works. More than that, Evans makes more dramatic sense of both the interpolated ‘Marry me a Little’ at the end of Act One and the rather blandly melodramatic ‘Being Alive’ at the end of Act Two than anyone else I’ve ever seen, largely because we’ve seen from almost the beginning of the show that this Robert, in private, is profoundly frightened by the direction his life is taking.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that he sings the hell out of the score. Pretty much everyone sings the hell out of the score. Francesca Annis, playing Joanne, went up on her lines in the middle of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ this afternoon, but that can happen to anyone, she covered it beautifully, and her subsequent scene with Evans was heart-stoppingly good. The highlight, Daniel Evans aside, is probably Damian Humbley’s quietly devastating ‘Sorry-Grateful’ – it’s a subtle, absolutely unshowy reading of the song that has enormous emotional resonance – but there is, as I said, fine work from every single member of this cast. Nobody puts a foot wrong.

I have, of course, a couple of minor quibbles, but then I always have at least one minor quibble. There’s a ten-piece band, and new orchestrations by Simon Hale. These are indeed new orchestrations, rather than the smaller-band Jonathan Tunick orchestration heard on the two 1995 revival cast recordings, and I’m not sure I liked them. I’m not sure I liked them largely because the sound system, from where I was sitting (row B, seat 8 ) was so muddy that I couldn’t hear them in that much detail. They seemed, in the title song, to be a little bit too self-consciously 1970; elsewhere, the sound system’s mix pushed piano, bass and drums so far into the foreground that they sometimes drowned out nearly everything else. And this production uses the revised text from the mid-1990s, which adds ‘Marry me a Little’ (an addition that works here, but usually falls flat) and cuts the Tick Tock ballet, which short-changes both the scene it interrupts and the actress playing Kathy, who is left with nothing at all to do in the second act.

Minor quibble aside, though, this Company is a major achievement. The show, as I said, is a sentimental favourite of mine; I’ve seen a lot of different productions, but none of them – including that first one – has made it seem as fresh as this one does.

Of course, now that he’s set the bar so high, I want to see Jonathan Munby direct Follies. With the original, unedited book. I can dream, can’t I?

 

Sweeney’s odd. Pirelli’s odder. Jonathan Tunick’s left outside.

You know how some things just rub you up the wrong way?

I saw a production of Sweeney Todd this afternoon, at the Octagon in Bolton. It’s not the first production I’ve seen, of course – I’ve seen, probably, eight or nine, plus two versions on DVD, in the past twenty years or so – but it’s the first one I’ve seen for a while (the last one I saw in the theatre, I think, was John Doyle‘s staging at the New Ambassadors in London), and the show is a favourite of mine, so I was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, I got to the theatre a little early and had time to read most of the programme before the show started (having paid £3.00 for it – a sum which constitutes gouging – I felt obliged to read at least some of it). And it irritated me. Oh, how it irritated me.

After a page of bios of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote it, we pitch straight into a three-page transcribed conversation between Elizabeth Newman, the director, and Amanda Collins, her assistant, in which it takes Ms. Newman approximately a third of a page to turn the smug up to eleven. Ms. Newman, apparently, is “striving to make musical instruments part of the visual narrative, so they play the same part as lighting, design and costume, as well as being the ultimate creators and vessels of musical sound.” Gosh. What that means is that the production can’t afford to pay actors and an orchestra, so we need to find some artistic justification for the fact that several of the actors will spend most of the show toting instruments they haven’t touched since university (if we’re lucky) or the sixth form (if we’re not).

It gets better. Ms. Newman goes on to explain to her assistant (and, by extension, to us) that she believes “human beings have created two wondrous things that sit in opposition – musical instruments and weapons.” Ms. Newman makes no mention of what might happen when a musical instrument is used as a weapon. Trust me, we will be getting to that later, and in more than one sense. You may wish to draw a polite veil over the bit where she explains to us that Mrs. Lovett is a dominatrix and Sweeney Todd is a sub. It’s not a bad idea, but some subtext doesn’t need to be explained.

Next, we have two pages of interviews with the production’s (unpaid) “community chorus”, an ensemble of non-professional performers who, in this production, sing most of the chorus material – and there’s quite a lot of chorus material. They all talk about what a rewarding experience the production has been, and they mean it. It’s important for regional theatres to build links to their communities; it’s easy to be cynical about something that looks suspiciously like getting chorus singers for free, but I think this is a genuinely worthwhile project, and it’s worth noting that the community chorus performers were absolutely terrific.

Then it gets good, but not in a good way. We have a page of discussion from two forensic scientists, who try and make some kind of tenuous leap between the world of the play and the world of CSI.  Yes, sadly, I do mean the television series. This is odd partly because nobody, during the course of the play, actually investigates any of Sweeney’s murders (Beadle Bamford tries, though he thinks he’s simply investigating a bad smell, and only gets close to the crime scene when he becomes part of the crime), and partly because this production opts for symbolism over fake blood anyway.

And, of course, the programme saves the best for last – a three-page transcribed conversation between Ms. Newman and the production’s musical director, Tom Atwood, in which they start off by discussing the genius of Sondheim and the healing power of art, and quickly move on to a more extensive discussion of  the genius of themselves, in the process turning the smug up from eleven to roughly infinity. Ms. Newman even sees fit to spend roughly half a page telling us all about how, when directing a musical, the lyrics should be approached and interrogated as part of the scene, and that they have to be “psychologically and mentally understood in the same way as if you were speaking it.” Bless her, she actually seems to believe that this is a new idea. Mr. Attwood, for his part, chooses to inform us that he believes that “a spectator or audience member should be required to bring their imagination along to the theatre.” Condescending much?

There’s no list of musical numbers in the programme. OK, not that important, but would have been nice. What we do have is the standard-issue list of billing credits from the original production on the left panel of the centre pages of the programme (cast and production team are on the right), ending with “Orchestrations by JONATHAN TUNICK” (the capitals are the programme’s, not mine). The original Broadway production did indeed have orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; you can hear them on the cast recording, and they are magnificent. I assume the billing is contractual, because they’re not being used here; what we have instead is essentially the piano/vocal score with other instruments joining in. That’s what happens in actor-musician productions, and I’m not, in fact, militantly against either reduced orchestrations (at least in smaller theatres like the Octagon, which seats 300-400 depending on how it’s configured) or actor-musicians – but please, don’t pretend we’re getting something we aren’t, and don’t assume the audience doesn’t know the difference.

[Edit: My friend John Baxindine, who is an encyclopaedia of such things, reminds me that Tunick also created a nine-player orchestration for the 1994 production at the National Theatre in London, which was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 2 - something I should have remembered, given that I saw it twice and listened to the broadcast. I'm fairly certain - and this video , on which you can hear some of that production's orchestrations, seems to back me up - that those reduced orchestrations, also, are not what is being offered here.]

So, yes, the programme irritated me, which isn’t a good way to start off watching a show. The production that followed also often irritated me, but it was also intermittently thrilling. It was, in fact, a quite startling mix of genuinely good and genuinely misbegotten.

On the good side, we have -

Gerald Beer as Sweeney. Gets better as the evening progresses, but he sings his difficult role very, very well indeed, plays the violin creditably well, and by the second half of Act Two he’s wonderful. He’s also about ten years too young for his role.

Using a violin bow (not the one he uses to play the violin) in place of a razor works beautifully, and is probably the best example I’ve seen of an actor-musician production finding a way to make the instrument into an extension of an actor’s character, which (ack!) somewhat justifies the obnoxiously smug programme notes on the subject. But only somewhat.

Ruth Alexander Rubin’s Mrs. Lovett. She’s also at least ten years too young, but she is absolutely superb – earthy, ruthless, funny, hard, surprisingly emotional (she finds colours in “Not While I’m Around” that I’ve never seen before), simultaneously warm and scary, and a wonderful singer. Plus she plays clarinet, keyboard, trombone and (like, gag me with a spoon) keytar, and manages the latter without dying of embarrassment, a fate that should be reserved for whichever individual decided to insert a keytar into Act Two of Sweeney Todd. Fortunately it’s only in one scene.

Adam Barlow and Barbara Hockaday as (respectively) Tobias and the Beggar Woman. They’re both excellent, and she’s also a mean bass player.

Lucy Sierra’s set (industrial minimalist) and Mary Horan’s period-indeterminate, slightly Steampunk costumes. The show looks good all the way through.

Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and Clara Darcy’s Pirelli is very, very, very bad. She clearly has a formidably powerful voice; here, she mostly uses it to screech, which doesn’t do much for either the humour or the music. No, I can’t tell you why Pirelli is being played by a woman either, except that Ms. Newman tells us in one of the smug programme conversations that John Doyle did it (I know, I saw his production, thanks) and it was kind of cool (my phrase, and no it wasn’t). The presence of the community chorus means that Doyle’s excuse of needing another soprano voice to balance out the vocal ensemble doesn’t apply. If it was a good performance, I’d buy it, but it isn’t a good performance.

At any given time when they are onstage, two or three members of the community chorus are carrying hand mikes, and they look stupid, particularly since they’re very lightly miked and could probably manage without them.

Lloyd Gorman as the Beadle was presumably not present during the bits of rehearsal in which Ms. Newman sought to bring the psychological truth of spoken dialogue to his lyrics. Ms. Newman, for her part, perhaps does not realise that you’re supposed to do this for all the characters, not just the leads.

Ms. Newman’s blocking fudges a couple of significant moments. Mrs. Lovett’s “So it is you! Benjamin Barker!” in the first act is drowned out by members of the chorus clattering down a metal staircase. It’s an important line, we need to hear it, and we don’t.

Putting a keytar onstage at all, even in a period-unspecific, slightly modern-dress production like this one, looks stupid. Having Mrs. Lovett and the Beadle sing the Parlour Songs to the accompaniment of one of the keytar’s cheesy 80s-sounding autoprogrammed rhythm/chord patterns isn’t innovative, clever or funny. It’s pissing all over the score, and Ms. Newman and Mr. Attwood deserve to be spanked for allowing it.

But, I’m afraid, the biggest problem with this production is something that has afflicted, to a greater or lesser extent, every single actor-musician production I’ve ever seen, and it’s very simple: MOST ACTORS DO NOT PLAY INSTRUMENTS AT THE SAME LEVEL AS PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS. This is a relatively difficult score, and it does not emerge unscathed from this production. Some of the playing, as noted elsewhere, is surprisingly good; some of it, however, is awful, and the worst offenders are the loudest: the actors cast as Anthony and Pirelli both play trumpet very badly indeed (the brass-heavy opening chords in “God, That’s Good” are particularly excruciating – mistimed, wobbly, and when they finally arrived they were the wrong notes). Most of the singing is genuinely good, but the orchestrations get very short shrift. In the hands of some actors, musical instruments are essentially assault weapons.

And here’s where we (finally!) get back to those smug programme notes. If I hadn’t read all of that stuff before the show started, I wouldn’t have reacted as strongly to the lapses in musicianship or the occasional duff performance (I would, however, still have wanted to waterboard whoever came up with the keytar). I’m open to the idea of actor-musician productions, I get that economic realities mean that they’re not going to go away, and I’ve even enjoyed some of them – including John Doyle’s London Sweeney Todd, which was nothing like as well sung as this is, and whose staging, in some ways, was considerably odder. And I booked my ticket in advance, paid full price, and went out wanting to enjoy the show. I did enjoy some of it – but I’m afraid reading half a dozen pages of patronising bullshit about the production before the lights went down left me more inclined to pick holes than I might have been, and it’s not as if the holes weren’t visible anyway. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

And if you tell me in the programme that I’ll be getting Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and then give me, essentially, the piano score with brass, wind, woodwind, violin and percussion embellishments, in which not every instrumental part is even played competently, I’ll be more than just irritated, particularly if I’m already irritated by your programme notes. That’s bait-and-switch, and it’s fundamentally dishonest.