The mirror’s getting blurred

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Sally should have died the first time. Phyllis tells a drinks waiter he’s getting her all wet. Weismann hits on a waitress. There’s no interval, so slamming down a venti Americano before you take your seat probably isn’t a good idea unless you’re wearing Depends. We are, thank God, back in 1971 in more ways than one: for this production, the cut-down-and-smoothed-out revised version of James Goldman‘s book for Follies has been well and truly buried. May it never return.

Follies, more than most, is a show with a bumpy production history. The original Broadway production ran for more than 500 performances but lost a then-unheard-of $800,000. A 1987 London production had a completely rewritten book; it had a longer run but also lost money. There have been two Broadway revivals since 2000; they each used the watered-down rewrite of the book that has become the standard version, and neither was a hit. This is a show fans obsess over – yes, me too, I even wrote about it for part of my MA thesis. The score, underappreciated by critics in 1971, is an embarrassment of riches; Goldman’s original book, though, is probably too bleak ever to be a long-running commercial success. Set at a reunion of former showgirls in a now-defunct Ziegfeld Follies-style extravaganza, the show ostensibly focuses on the unhappy marriages of two ex-chorines, Sally and Phyllis, and their less-than-completely-faithful husbands, (respectively) oil rig salesman Buddy and politician/businessman Ben. On one level, the slender plot is simple: Sally and Phyllis danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. Sally married Buddy, Phyllis married Ben – but Sally and Ben had a fling before their engagements, and Sally arrives at the reunion having spent the past thirty years pining for what might have been. Actually, it’s about far more than that: during the reunion, the show’s characters are confronted by their younger selves, dredging up questions of memory and identity that locate the book in a surreal no-man’s-land between Pinter and Pirandello, with a hefty dollop of Fellini thrown in and a sprinkling of Albee on top. And on top of THAT, the whole thing is a metaphor for America’s postwar decline. It’s wonderful (if you don’t get one of the various watered-down rewrites), and I love it, but if you just want tap-dancing chorus girls you’re better off at 42nd Street.

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God knows what the National had to do in order to persuade James Goldman’s widow to allow them to use the not-watered-down bleak-but-brilliant original book, but we can all be very glad they did: Dominic Cooke’s production more than does it justice, although it isn’t without flaws. This isn’t quite precisely the unadulterated original text; there have been a few interesting tweaks here and there, and they’re all intelligent choices – although none of them amount to life-or-death changes. In the dumbed-down rewrite that has become the standard published text, there are a couple of crossovers in the final scene – minor characters leaving the party, given a couple of lines each. Those are inserted earlier in the show, before the surreal Follies-as-metaphor Loveland sequence, and it’s perhaps useful, by that point in the show, to emphasise the lateness of the hour as the four central characters succumb to a combination of alcohol, obsession, and spectacular self-loathing. Cooke keeps the “ghosts” onstage far more than the stage directions suggest; they’re almost always present somewhere, and all the party guests are mirrored/stalked/haunted by their own pasts. Accordingly, in the long opening sequence, the first fragment of song (as opposed to underscoring) comes from two of the ghosts: Young Ben and Young Buddy get a “hey up there/way up there/whaddya say up there?” (the opening phrase of ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, a song that arrives twenty minutes or so later) before anyone else has sung a word. ‘Bolero d’Amour’, on the other hand, has been cut, although it was apparently in the show during early previews (I saw the last-but-one preview before press night). And – purists will seethe, but this is London not New York and this choice makes sense – in ‘I’m Still Here’ Carlotta sings that she got through Shirley Temple rather than Brenda Frazier. I suppose they could have explained Brenda Frazier in a programme note, but who reads those?

(I do, actually, and in this case you should too: the programme includes fine, informative, well-written essays by David Benedict, Russell Jackson, and Gary Yershon, and a snippet of Ted Chapin’s wonderful book about the making of the original production. It’s well worth the £5.)

A big part of Cooke’s achievement here is that he understands the rhythm of the piece, and with Follies that is by no means always the case. Until the ‘Loveland’ show-within-a-show at the evening’s climax, Follies is structured as a continuous tapestry rather than as a succession of individual scenes, using a theatrical equivalent of cinematic crossfades – as one piece of the action ends, another begins somewhere else on the stage and your eye is drawn to it. Harold Prince’s original Broadway production achieved this effect using several moving platforms (there is some archival footage available); here, Cooke makes judicious use of the Olivier’s revolve (though not the drum) and Paule Constable’s perfectly-eerie lighting to keep the action spinning, and to shift focus between different areas of Vicki Mortimer’s desolate-but-beautiful derelict-backstage set.

He understands the rhythm of the dialogue as well, and that’s something that also appears to have eluded some directors. Goldman’s script starts out looking naturalistic, at least if you look past the ghosts, but it really isn’t. These are emblems rather than fully fleshed-out characters – remember, the whole show is a metaphor – and that’s a deliberate choice. The characters are simultaneously slightly larger-than-life and slightly less than three-dimensional, and there’s a surreal, arch theatricality to the dialogue that can feel painfully stilted if the actors don’t catch the correct rhythm. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Restoration comedy, only with a darker edge, and it requires the same kind of discipline and pace. Cooke makes it make perfect sense; in this production, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the pace never lets up. Dark as the material becomes, though, the delivery in this production stays just the right side of being too arch; there are laughs too – though not in the last ten to fifteen minutes – and they’re all present and correct, and again that isn’t an easy thing to achieve in material as ostensibly bleak as this.

And those ghosts are everywhere. There’s a ghostly entrance parade (way) upstage behind the older women during ‘Beautiful Girls’, the Whitmans dance with their younger selves in ‘Rain on the Roof’, Carlotta’s ghost looks down on her as she sings ‘I’m Still Here’. It sounds like embellishment, but it’s a choice that consistently pays off; everyone in this Follies is haunted by the past, but some are much better than others at facing it down.

Cooke also draws fine performances from his actors, right down to the smallest roles. Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are absolutely charming as the Whitmans, and their ‘Rain on the Roof’ is a delight. Geraldine Fitzgerald is a drily funny Solange. Di Botcher cannily underplays ‘Broadway Baby’, so that a song that these days can seem like a cliché feels absolutely fresh. They get to do the trio ending combining their three numbers, and it’s a showstopper. Bruce Graham is a golden-voiced Roscoe, and Gary Raymond is a fascinatingly haunted/haunting Dmitri Weismann. As Stella Deems, Dawn Hope sings the hell out of ‘Who’s That Woman?’, the memorable tap number in which the ex-chorus girls literally dance with their younger selves.

The score is an embarrassment of riches, but so is this cast. As fading soprano Heidi Schiller, Josephine Barstow is simply beautiful. ‘One More Kiss’, a mock-Viennese waltz with a sting in the lyric, is the score’s loveliest song; as sung by Barstow and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi, it has possibly never been lovelier. Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta Campion – the show’s great survivor, a former Follies girl who became a film and television star – seems to be channeling (pre-breakdown) Judy Garland, but that’s a choice that works for the role, and that impression is probably reinforced by having seen Bennett’s powerhouse performance as Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow. Bennett’s Carlotta is strong, unsentimental, almost flinty – but at a certain point Bennett lets you see vulnerability too, and her I’m Still Here isn’t quite like any other performance of the song I’ve encountered. It starts as a reminiscence to friends, but then once she’s left alone onstage, halfway through the number, it becomes something darker and more complex: simultaneously a triumphant shout of survival and a more introspective acknowledgment of the emotional toll that comes with enduring adversity. It’s surprisingly moving, and an original, subtle take on a song that too often just gets steamrollered into the ground.

As for the central quartet and their younger counterparts, it’s mostly good news there too. Peter Forbes is an ideal Buddy – affable, ingratiating, sad around the edges. He isn’t a tap-dancer, but ‘The Right Girl’ is reconceived as an almost-adversarial dance duet with Fred Haig’s equally ideal Young Buddy, and it works very well indeed. Philip Quast brings tremendous gravitas to his portrayal of Ben, and in his hands ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ – Sondheim’s baldest statement of the show’s overriding theme – is as affecting as it has ever been. And you’ll probably want to go home and erect some kind of shrine to Janie Dee’s Phyllis, because she’s perfect.

That leaves Imelda Staunton’s Sally, which is an impeccable performance in every way except one. Staunton does not fall into the trap of making Sally manic or bipolar from the top of the show. She very carefully charts a slow descent into madness, and it’s a very, very fine acting performance. Sondheim’s music, on the other hand, is not a good fit for her voice. She doesn’t commit the kind of crimes against the human eardrum perpetrated by Bernadette Peters on the most recent Broadway cast album, but Sally’s songs demand a soprano and she just isn’t one. That said, she more or less gets away with it: her ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ is absolutely transfixing (and yes, she does hit all the notes, though I think it’s been taken down a step for her), because the acting performance is compelling enough to carry the music with it – and to be fair, she floats a lovely pianissimo whatever-it-is on the last note of the song. She takes the middle of ‘Too Many Mornings’ down an octave, but does hit the high notes at the end of the song. Her Loveland number, ‘Losing My Mind’, is less successful, but that’s partly because the staging is too busy: she sings a good part of the song in profile to the audience, sitting at a dressing table, and it would help if she was allowed to face the audience from the beginning.

Part of the problem, though, is undeniably the mismatch between the song and the performer. Staunton is a brilliant actor with a versatile voice that can encompass a wider range of musical roles than you might imagine – but she does not have the kind of glorious one-of-a-kind singing voice that could stand in the same league as some of her predecessors in the role. When Dorothy Collins, Barbara Cook or Julia McKenzie sang the song – and all three are/were superb actors too – their voices could do some of the heavy lifting. McKenzie literally just stood completely still then raised both arms on the penultimate line of the final verse; as careful as her acting choices in that moment were, she also has the kind of voice that makes an entire theatre stop breathing until she’s finished the number, and her physical stillness was a powerful statement in itself given that the song essentially spends four minutes describing a state of emotional paralysis. Staunton doesn’t have that kind of voice, so the song is given more elaborate blocking (in profile, face forward, pick up a glass and take a drink, stand for the final verse, yada yada) as if to compensate. The acting choices make perfect sense, and she (correctly) plays the performance pastiche rather than the nervous breakdown underpinning the song – but the song benefits enormously from a thrilling voice, and it doesn’t get one.

And having said all that, Staunton’s performance in the final scene is so heartbreaking that you’ll probably forgive her more or less anything for her delivery of the line “Oh dear God, it IS tomorrow.”. Her presence in the role brings gains and losses; she’s wonderful, but she’s also imperfect – and perhaps all the more so next to the marvellous Alex Young’s Young Sally, because Young has the acting chops and the voice.

The Loveland sequence as a whole, in fact, is somewhat problematic. Cooke’s direction, so perfect in the preceding scenes, goes off the rails a little with the onset of the climactic show-within-a-show. Loveland is basically a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies performance in which the four principal characters each perform their own individual folly; the transition into Loveland is handled well enough, although the Loveland set could usefully look a little more opulent, and the scene-setting numbers for the Young quartet are perfectly charming. Forbes’s “Margie” and “Sally” in ‘Buddy’s Blues’ are chorus boys in drag; it’s not a damaging choice, and there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it is a definite choice, and there’s no discernible reason for it.

[Edit – I’m informed by friends who would know – and I should have known too because I’ve read the same books – that using two chorus boys here was the way the number was originally conceived and staged, although that version of it didn’t make it as far as the Broadway opening. Oops.]

The staging of ‘Losing My Mind’ pulls your focus away from what Staunton’s Sally is feeling, and places it instead on what she’s doing. Phyllis’s ‘Story of Lucy and Jessie’, in which she tries to reconcile the chasm between her present and younger selves, is the most completely successful of the four numbers; Dee’s Phyllis, in a black dress that redefines va-va-voom, dances with Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis as well as a gaggle of chorus boys. Again, a definite choice, and not quite what the stage directions suggest, but it works, Bill Deamer’s choreography is terrific, and it’s crystal clear in this staging that Phyllis’s “folly” is her inability to reconcile the persona she assumed after marrying Ben with the (relatively) carefree but unschooled young woman she used to be (I think it’s crystal clear in the lyrics as well, but it’s a point that seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of London’s theatre critics). Quast’s ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ is great until the onset of the breakdown that takes us out of Loveland and back into the derelict theatre. His collapse simply isn’t big enough – and the issue is with the direction rather than the actor, because the scripted chaos/cacophony that accompanies the moment is also more subdued than it needs to be.

And again, having said all that, the final scene – with every line from the orignal version restored – is superb, and well worth whatever missteps the production might have taken during the preceding twenty minutes.

Other reservations? Purists might prefer Michael Bennett’s original choreography for ‘Who’s That Woman?’ to Deamer’s account of the number, in which the ‘ghosts’, in the tap section, take the stage alone before dancing with their older counterparts. It’s different, it works, and the number stops the show – and having the ghosts briefly supplant their older counterparts is entirely in keeping with the way this production uses the ghosts from the beginning as living memories who inhabit the theatre and refuse to be put to rest – but the original choreography is justifiably celebrated (and has occasionally been used in subsequent productions), and it’s momentarily jarring to see such a decisively different take on the song. And when just about everything else in Cooke’s production is executed with commendable subtlety and restraint, it’s (to say the least) a step too far to have the large electric WEISSMAN FOLLIES sign hanging over the stage sputter and fade so it just says LIES during the chaos sequence that takes us from Loveland back to the bare stage of the Weissman Theatre. We already got the point; it doesn’t need illuminating, particularly not with a several-feet-high sign made of lightbulbs.

And – not that this has anything to do with anything on the stage – exercise caution in the National Theatre bookshop after the show. If you care about such things, the new edition of the published script with this production’s artwork on the cover unfortunately does not reflect the version of the text used in this production:

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No, I didn’t buy it. There’s a long-out-of-print Random House edition of the original 1971 book; I once owned a copy but it went AWOL a few years ago; another is on the way. Secondhand copies cost more than the new published edition, but can be found within my pain threshold (and for less than I paid for the theatre ticket). Caveat emptor – and while I certainly understand the impulse to have a copy of the published script on sale to tie in with this revival, the differences between the two scripts mean this leaves a slightly sour taste. The revised script essentially reads as if Goldman went through his original book with a razor and carefully cut out everything that made it interesting. It’s a pale imitation; this production, despite a couple of flaws, offers the real deal.

Goodness, this went on for a long time, didn’t it? Overall, while this production makes a few missteps, a lot of it is thrilling. Cooke’s great achievement is to demonstrate loudly and clearly that despite the show’s “failure” back in 1971, the original book plays beautifully and is vastly superior to every subsequent rewrite. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent, sometimes dazzling production of difficult material, and – mostly – an impeccable presentation of Sondheim’s glorious score. You even get Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, courtesy of a twenty-piece band tucked away at the back of the Olivier’s vast stage (the flawless musical direction is by Nigel Lilley). It isn’t quite the idealised revival of the show I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last twenty-plus years, but it probably couldn’t be; parts of it don’t match up, and parts of it are better than anything I’d imagined. Given the National’s budgetary constraints – the transition into Loveland really needs to look as if the designers threw a lot of money at the stage, and here it just doesn’t – and the fact that the show has never turned a profit in a commercial production, this is probably as good a revival as anyone could ever have expected. Cooke and Deamer’s choices, though, mean that devotees of the show – there are people, God help us, who are more obsessive than I am – are going to be arguing about this staging, and about at least a couple of the performances (Staunton and Bennett, and maybe Quast in the breakdown/chaos sequence) for years. Me? I’m just glad I get to see it again before it closes in January.

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One stepladder, other stepladder

allegro

Or, Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s rarely-performed musical Allegro, which I saw last Saturday afternoon. Bullet points, because it’s been that kind of week:

  • Way back in 1947, Stephen Sondheim was famously a gofer on the original Broadway production. He obviously paid attention: it’s fascinating to connect the dots between this material and his later work.
  • It really, really, REALLY doesn’t play like a show from 1947. Or rather, in terms of the writing, it’s 1947 vocabulary constructed using syntax that, at the time, must have seemed quite alien in a Broadway musical. The writing throughout is very, very stylised, apart from in the major solos and duets; in particular, the show’s (spoken/intoned) Greek chorus lends the show’s storytelling an almost Brechtian air that would not necessarily have sat comfortably with an audience expecting to see another Carousel.
  • The score is wonderful. The show may not have found much success on Broadway, but it’s difficult to fault the music. The two big takeaway tunes – ‘So Far’ and ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ – are highlights, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. The choral writing, in particular, is often quite beautiful.
  • Hammerstein’s (original, not adapted from another source) story of a smalltown doctor making his way in the big city, on the other hand, is rather slight. We’re clearly supposed to infer that Joseph Taylor, Jr. is an Everyman figure and that the story of his life is supposed to carry some kind of metaphorical weight, but the sweetly charming first act doesn’t provide a firm enough foundation for the ethical dilemma the character faces in the later scenes in Act Two.
  • The Majestic Theatre‘s large, wide stage and proscenium arch also probably didn’t do the show any favours. Thom Southerland’s Southwark Playhouse production gains enormously from the small space: viewing Joseph Taylor, Jr. up close, it’s very easy to become invested in his story, despite the thinness of some scenes in Hammerstein’s book.
  • Southerland’s staging is more or less flawless. Using a traverse stage puts the action right in the audience’s lap, which with this material is an enormous advantage. The budget was obviously minimal – Anthony Lamble’s cleverly simple set consists of a couple of stepladders, a couple of interlocking planks, a moveable scaffold, and an assortment of wooden chairs – but Southerland and his choreographer, Lee Proud, turn simplicity into a virtue, keeping the show’s (almost) ever-present chorus in (almost) constant motion, so that there’s always something new to look at.
  • Never mind the tiny budget – some key moments are executed with considerable flair. The staging of ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is masterful: much of the song is sung from the upper level of a scaffold which chorus members move from one end of the stage to the other, above a line of umbrella-toting customers at (what I assume we’re supposed to infer is) a taxi rank.
  • The performances are impeccable, right down to every last member of the ensemble, and Gary Tushaw is an enormously appealing Everyman. The singing is superb, both from each individual principal player and from the chorus.
  • The production does very well indeed by the score’s two hit songs. Leah West’s ‘So Far’ is shimmeringly lovely, and Katie Bernstein’s sharply rueful ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is probably the evening’s highlight (or rather, afternoon’s highlight, I saw a matinee) – all the more remarkable given than she sings a good chunk of it while being trundled from one end of the stage to the other on top of a scaffold.
  • Ideal as the performances are, the cast can’t quite paper over the significant second-act cracks in Hammerstein’s book. Taylor’s big epiphany at the show’s climax is a huge dramatic outburst that the rest of the show doesn’t quite support – and because the scene, as written, doesn’t quite work to begin with, the actors, particularly Tushaw, push too hard, so that it feels like the show takes a sudden left turn from A Real Nice Clambake straight into Act Three of King Lear. The show, structurally, is far ahead of its time, and here is where it shows the most: what the moment needs, essentially, is something along the lines of Rose’s Turn, which was never going to be forthcoming from Richard Rodgers – at least, not in 1947.
  • Yes, every note of the big Act Two ballet is included. These performers mostly aren’t dancers, but Lee Proud gets a tremendously entertaining account of the title song from his cast. Again, the tight space probably helps.
  • There’s a band of 8, and I was never aware of the unpleasantly metallic sound of a synthesiser string pad, which is often a feature of reduced orchestrations in this kind of production.Mark Cumberland’s new orchestrations get an impressive range of colours out of this small band, and there’s sensitive music direction from Dean Austin. The chorus singing is impressively tight, the production is only very lightly amplified (you might question the need for any amplification at all in such a small space, but this theatre is housed in a former warehouse and I suspect the auditorium’s natural acoustics are somewhat challenging), and it’s thrilling to get to experience this score up close – at least, for musical theatre geeks like me.
  • It’s a nice feature of Southwark Playhouse productions that they bring the whole band, rather than just the MD, out to take a bow during the curtain call. The musicians are as important as anyone on the stage; in musical theatre, that’s too often forgotten.
  • In terms of bang for your buck, the Southwark Playhouse is a bargain. Tickets are £25, preview tickets are significantly cheaper, programmes are £3, drinks are very reasonable indeed. In this instance, for £25 you got a cast of 16 professional actors and 8 musicians – all of whom got paid – giving a thoroughly lovely account of a beautiful, rarely-heard score, directed by someone who is clearly an expert at getting the absolute most of out every penny spent on each production. Not only that, they do extremely impressive outreach work within their local community, particularly via their Young Company. In more ways than one, they do good work.

Overall? If Southerland and his cast never quite manage to convince you that you’re watching a lost masterpiece, it’s still wonderful to have the opportunity to hear this score in a theatre. It’s never going to be revived on Broadway or in the West End; while the show doesn’t quite work, there’s more than enough good in it to make it worth another look, and the score, as I said, is glorious.

I wish…

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If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.

That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.

This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.

It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.

In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.

Here’s a little story that should make you cry…

Follies DVD

Or, a game of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The good:
There is now a production of Follies available on DVD (and that’s all I’m going to say about the show itself, because if you’re reading this you probably shouldn’t need a synopsis.)

The bad:
It’s the Opéra de Toulon production from two years ago.

The ugly:
The actor playing Buddy (Jérôme Pradon) is costumed in a bright red sparkly tuxedo with subtly clashing red trousers, and is forced to perform “Buddy’s Blues” in his underwear.

The good:
Charlotte Page as Sally and Liz Robertson as Phyllis. Two fine performances, and they deserve to be in a better production. Page’s ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, in particular, is absolutely haunting.

The bad:
The actress playing  Young Sally is a bit pitch-approximate, and for some strange reason is made up to resemble Siobhan Redmond playing Shona Spurtle in ‘The High Life’.

The ugly:
Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
There’s a large orchestra playing the original orchestrations under the baton of David Charles Abell, who is about as good as anyone in the world when it comes to this kind of material.

The bad:
The actors are stuck with the current licensed version of the text, which is significantly weaker than the 1971 original. For this, our thanks must allegedly go to James Goldman’s widow, who refuses to let any other version of the show be performed. Apparently she thinks her late husband’s work is better when it’s been disembowelled.

The ugly:
Really. Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
Charlotte Page’s Sally is probably the standout vocal performance here, but the singing is almost all excellent.

The bad:
You can’t always say the same for the acting, particularly from the people with bit-parts.

The ugly:
The same actor doubles as Roscoe and Max Deems. Max Deems only has about three lines – but for some reason the actor is forced to wear white face-paint, and looks as if he’s auditioning to play Ko-Ko in Jonathan Miller’s production of ‘The Mikado’ at the ENO. It just about works when he’s singing ‘Beautiful Girls’; in the subsequent scene, though, it looks odd.

The good:
Marilyn Hill Smith and Kristy Swift offer an absolutely ravishing ‘One More Kiss’.

The bad:
Solange is played by a man in drag (Denis D’Arcangelo) for no apparent reason; he does his best, but it doesn’t really work.

The ugly:
Marilyn Hill Smith’s lilac hair matches the fluffy hem of her gown.

And so on. It’s an odd, frustrating, sometimes very entertaining experience; the score, of course, is peerless, and it’s well played and often beautifully sung, and the power of the material does shine through here and there. Olivier Bénézech’s production, though, while obviously operating within fairly rigid budget constraints, is pretty much a two-hour parade of OMGWTF with a few good bits thrown in, and it says a great deal for the material, even in this weaker, revised version, that he and his choreographer (Caroline Roëlands)and set designer (Valérie Jung, whose designs for the Loveland sequence are the production’s lowest point) don’t manage to completely kill the show.

Unfortunately between them they very nearly kill ‘Who’s That Woman?’, which is usually one of the show’s great highlights; I can certainly forgive Roëlands for not using the original Michael Bennett choreography, which would perhaps have been too complicated to rehearse in what I imagine was a rather limited rehearsal period, but she simply misses the point of the number. The point of the song is to see the older characters singing and dancing with their younger selves; in what is supposed to be th efirst moment in the show where the past and present characters interact, Roëlands for some reason chooses to keep the ‘ghosts’ offstage until relatively late in the number. Instead we see video footage of the younger dancers projected on the back wall before they actually enter, and when they finally arrive onstage, they function more or less as a chorus line. If you didn’t know who/what they were supposed to represent, you might not guess; it’s not as if her choreography is particularly exciting to begin with, so as a result, the number that should be the show’s biggest showstopper falls flat.

The Loveland sequence, in terms of direction, is possibly worse. Musically, it’s a very respectable account indeed (we’ll draw a polite veil over Young Sally); visually, it’s a lurid day-glo nightmare of ugly projections and misguided costumes.

And speaking of the costumes, Sally enters at the top of the show wearing a green dress, which means that an hour later, in ‘Too Many Mornings’, she has to sing ‘should I have worn green?/I wore green the last time’ instead of ‘I should have worn green/I wore green the last time’. It’s a minor point, I suppose – but really, in the whole of the south of France, could they really only find Charlotte Page a green frock?

I could go on picking holes, but you get the idea – in many ways, this is as far from an ideal production of Follies as you could imagine. On the other hand… it’s a full production of Follies on DVD. It has the complete score, the original orchestrations, and a cast of good singers. The four principals are all in places undercut by the staging, but they all emerge with their dignity intact, and I’d be curious to see them all – particularly Page, who is good here and could be a very fine Sally indeed – in a better production. I even liked Graham Bickley (Ben), for only the second time ever (the first was as Signor Naccarelli in ‘The Light in the Piazza’ at Curve). Bénézech may botch some of the show’s big moments, but he does at least understand the basic rhythm of the scenes, and that they should cross-fade into each other so that the show never stops for a blackout.   Some of the earlier ensemble numbers, like ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, work very well, Julia Sutton’s ‘Broadway Baby’ is a delight, Nicole Croisille’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is a little eccentric in places but she gets away with it, and – have I mentioned this already? – there are 47 players in the pit, and the score sounds glorious. And above all, there is, thank God, no Bernadette Peters, whose jaw-droppingly awful performance as Sally on the show’s most recent cast album is even more misguided than Ms. Roëlands’s choreography for “Who’s That Woman”.

The bottom line: for the price of a DVD, if you love the material, this is probably worth owning.  If, on the other hand, I had shelled out for the cost of an expensive ticket plus hotel and airfare in order to see this production in the theatre, I imagine my response to it would be considerably less charitable.

Oh yes… and if you aren’t French, there’s a snag. The DVD is region 2 only, which is not an insurmountable problem, and it is not available for sale in English-speaking markets, which means you’re going to have to negotiate Amazon.fr, which only offers service in French.  Bonne chance!

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

Or, some quick thoughts about the current London revival of Gypsy:

* It’s one of my favourite shows (I wrote about that the last time I saw it), so to me, ANY production is an event.

* Given Imelda Staunton’s reviews, both here and in the production’s initial run in Chichester, this revival is rapidly turning into An Event. Ms. Staunton is giving one of those landmark performances that people will be talking about for years.

* Yes, she can belt. Not that everything in the score has to be belted – the role was created by Ethel Merman, but there’s more than one way to sing this score – and Ms. Staunton brings a great deal of light and shade to her interpretation of the music. The fact that she can unleash a great big belt voice when she needs to seems to surprise some people, though. Perhaps they didn’t see her in Guys and Dolls.

* Ms. Staunton, though, is an actress before she’s a singer, and this is first and foremost an acting performance. Her performance is both funnier and darker than other people I’ve seen in the role have been – she’s an immensely skilled comic actress (I mean, she even managed to be funny in the witless sitcom Is It Legal?), this is a musical comedy, and she finds every laugh you’d expect, along with several you don’t. At the same time, though, she is truly formidable – and it’s also clear from the outset that this Rose, psychologically, is a little out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. She can be charming, but she’s fuelled by rage, and when she explodes – as in the scene in Granziger’s office towards the end of the first act – her anger is disproportionate. This is a woman with very little sense of perspective.

* This serves to make her, oddly, more fragile than some other Roses have been. Her big numbers at the end of each act – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – are each, here, genuine breakdowns. Staunton’s Rose’s Turn, in particular, is emotionally wounding in a way nobody else I’ve seen in the role has quite managed. I think the entire theatre stopped breathing until the number was over.

* Actually, I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the second half of the second act. Even if you know the show by heart – which I do, more or less – this is an unusually compelling production.

* Peter Davison’s Herbie and Lara Pulver’s Louise haven’t received enough praise. Davison has always been underrated as a stage actor, and this is some of the best work he’s ever done. Pulver sings beautifully, of course, but her second-act scenes with Rose, again, are more bruising here than they’ve been in other productions. Nothing escapes these actors; this is as good an account of the show’s book as you are likely to see.

* It’s a pity, therefore, that they’re using the slightly cut-down revised version of the book from the 2008 City Center revival (no ‘Small World’ reprise, much shorter version of the hotel scene in the first act in which Rose no longer accuses the hotel manager of attempted rape, a few other nips and tucks). None of the alterations are improvements; I’m not sure the cuts are mandatory, given that they weren’t included in the last British revival, and when everything else here is so good, it’s a shame to find them working from a slightly less effective version of the script. The stuff that’s missing here is not superfluous.

* The strippers – Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe, and Julie Legrand – are hilarious. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” brings the house down.

* Director Jonathan Kent’s big achievement here lies in the performances. It’s a solid staging of the show, but not a startling one. He has a superb cast, and he keeps out of their way.

* A string section would have been nice. This production has a trio of central performances that may be as close to definitive as anyone has achieved since the show’s original Broadway cast in 1959; it’s a pity they’re working to a somewhat reduced orchestration, although the reductions are quite skilfully done. It’s not a tiny band, but it’s not the original orchestrations either, and the original orchestrations are glorious.

* It’s a little bit anal of me, I know, but it’s not my very favourite thing when a theatre programme refers to a character by a name that’s never mentioned in the script:

Imelda Momma

* Those are minor quibbles, though. This production is running until November. If you love theatre, musical or not, you need to see it. Staunton is doing the strongest work of her career so far, and everybody else rises to her level. Theatrical experiences as thrilling as this don’t come along often.

The light is getting dimmer (I wish I saw a glimmer)…

Or, some reflections on having sat through Into the Woods at the cinema this afternoon:

* The coffee cups at the AMC cinema in Manchester are absolute crap. The lids don’t fit, the cups themselves are unbelievably flimsy, and you end up – at least, if you’re unlucky, as I seem to have been this afternoon – wearing as much of the coffee as you manage to drink.

* You might suspect it isn’t a good sign when the headline item in a discussion of a particular film is the coffee cups used by the cinema’s concession stand. You would be correct.

* Having said that, it isn’t necessarily a terrible film. It might even, one key piece of casting aside, be the best possible film that could be made from this material in the absence of the kind of top-down rewrite that is never going to happen when the stage author is also responsible for the screenplay.

* But having said that, some things just don’t work as well in the cinema as they do onstage (and, undoubtedly, vice versa), and I’m afraid that’s the case here.

* The show – we all know the plot, don’t we? – is a mashup of several existing tales and a new one written to join them together. On a stage, it is perfectly possible to have three things happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage, as long as you have a director who knows how to direct the audience’s focus to where it needs to be on each beat of the scene. A camera, on the other hand, can usually only photograph one thing at once (yes, I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions), so jumping between different storylines that shared the same space in the stage musical requires a lot of cross-cutting.

* This means the movie gets off to a rather jerky start. In the theatre, the twelve-minute opening sequence, with the beginnings of the show’s several fairytale storylines taking place in the same physical space, is a tour-de-force. Here, it’s a lumpy mess of cuts between different actors and different bits of songs, and it never coalesces into a coherent whole.

* The rest of the film is better, but it still, for far too much of the time, seems to progress in fits and starts. Character songs like Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”, which work well enough onstage, bring the film’s action to a grinding halt, despite (in both cases) winning performances from the young actors in those roles.

* That’s doubly true for the Baker and his wife’s big first-half duet, “It Takes Two”. It’s absolutely charming, it’s beautifully performed, and we’ve got the point thirty seconds into the song, which then goes on for another two minutes. That’s true in a number of places in the film, which feels overlong, whereas the stage show, in a good production, doesn’t.

* With one exception, whatever problems the film might have are certainly not the fault of the cast. The performances – with one exception – are absolutely terrific. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife have good-enough singing voices, great chemistry, and charm and comic timing to spare, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is suitably earnest and prettily sung, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen ham it up beautifully as a pair of preening Princes. There’s lovely work in even the tiniest roles – Tracey Ullman is delightfully sharp as Jack’s Mother, Christine Baranski is a fabulously bitchy evil stepmother, and it’s fun spotting Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, and Simon Russell Beale in two-minute walk-on parts.

* And then there’s Meryl Streep, who clearly had a ball playing the Witch. She’s scary, funny, absolutely compelling, and she sings the hell out of her songs (something which – cough – eluded the lady who created the role in the original Broadway production). Whatever is wrong with the film as a whole, Ms. Streep is worth the cost of a ticket (so, to be fair, are Mr. Corden and Ms. Blunt).

* And that leaves Johnny Depp, and I wish they had. I’m old – well, over 40 – and I can remember, just about, when Mr. Depp was capable of playing something other than Mr. Depp. It was a long time ago. Here, unfortunately, he doesn’t even play himself particularly well; given that pretty much all the other actors are working at the top of their game, it’s all the more obvious that he’s phoning it in. Fortunately, he’s on screen for less than ten minutes, although it feels longer.

* The design, art direction, and set decoration, on the other hand, are all impressive; whatever the film’s longueurs, there’s always something to look at. And as the story progresses past happily-ever-after into the second act’s thorny mess of consequences and moral equivalency, the film’s look, to the design team’s very great credit, becomes satisfyingly (and appropriately) dark. The plot’s climax doesn’t really work on any level unless it feels as if the remaining characters (by the last twenty minutes, some have died or disappeared) are literally facing the end of the world; here, it possibly isn’t quite as dark as it needs to be (bearing in mind that I saw the original London production, which threw commercial considerations to the wind and staged the second act with a dark brilliance that I’ve yet to see any other production quite match – on the evidence of the DVD, the slick, shallow, too-glossy original Broadway production certainly didn’t), but it’s closer than anyone had any right to expect in a Disney film of this material.

* But just like his stage script, James Lapine’s screenplay still falls apart in the last twenty minutes, although he’s cut this section of the piece far more ruthlessly than he has elsewhere. It’s obvious – not least because Lapine has one character or another state it baldly approximately every ninety seconds throughout the second half – that they were aiming to use fairytales to demonstrate that you must be careful what you wish for, and that actions have consequences (Sondheim is not entirely free from blame here either – those are the subjects of the two dreariest songs in his mostly charmingly effervescent score, and they come back-to-back at the very end of the film). In the event, what we actually get is a story about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a cloyingly sanctimonious ballad about community responsibility while you lure your victim into her trap. That’s been a fault in almost every stage production I’ve seen; the original London production just about got away with it because the director, Richard Jones, staged the show’s climax so that it genuinely felt as if the central characters were facing the apocalypse. That production, though, was dark to the point of being frightening, and quite emphatically Not For Children, and this is a Disney film. It’s to the great credit of everyone involved that they get as close as they do to making it as dark and scary as it needs to be for the ending to work, and Frances de la Tour’s Giantess is a triumph of both acting and special effects – but they don’t quite go far enough, and a miss, in this case, is as good as a mile.

* This is an issue that is possibly magnified in Britain: Red Riding Hood, in the film, is cast younger than she was in the stage show. In the film, she’s a pre-adolescent, and over the past couple of years we’ve been bombarded with a series of truly horrifying news stories about the sexual abuse of young girls by older men, beginning with but not limited to the Jimmy Savile saga and the grooming ring in Rochdale. In that context, the way Sondheim and Lapine present the Red Riding Hood storyline with a clear subtext of sexual awakening can’t help but look decidedly icky, all the more so given that Lilla Crawford is only about 13 (the actors I’ve seen in the role in stage productions all read as late teens). I get that it’s supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, but those scenes tread a fine line, and the extent to which that issue has been in the news here recently results in the film ending up somewhere on the wrong side of that line. Mr. Depp’s louche-but-somnambulant performance doesn’t help.

* Overall, in terms of direction, this is by far Rob Marshall’s best movie musical, although he doesn’t surmount all of the problems inherent in putting this very, very stagy piece on screen. The film looks good, the performances are nearly all excellent, and there are a lot of lovely individual moments, even if the whole never quite adds up to the sum of the parts.

* We should not forget, however, that Mr. Marshall’s two other movie musicals to date are Chicago – fitfully brilliant but exhaustingly hyperactive, and a film whose director clearly didn’t entirely trust his material – and Nine, which was a nearly-unparalleled flaming cinematic Hindenburg which took almost everyone in its impressively starry cast down with it. “Rob Marshall’s best movie musical” is not a particularly high bar.

* And it’s a pity that the one thing – apart from every decision connected to the appearance in the film of Mr. Johnny Depp – that Mr. Marshall really botches is the ending. Having the Witch sing “Children Will Listen” in voice-over over the final scene is a cop-out, particularly given that we see Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife as (presumably) a ghost, and slicing off the final reprise of the title song so that it plays as a standalone piece over the end credits means that the film doesn’t end so much as just stop.

* In the final analysis, then, it’s a disappointment. I enjoyed a lot of individual elements in the film – it’s often very funny, it has a great cast, the songs are often beautifully staged, and it’s always interesting and sometimes enchanting to look at – but taken as a whole, it really doesn’t work. If you love the show – or Sondheim – you’ll need to see it, and you’ll probably want the DVD (though maybe not the soundtrack album) – but once you’ve seen it, you’ll very quickly go back to the two available videos of stage productions and the various cast albums. The film is a valiant effort, but in the end, this material belongs on the stage.

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.