Shadowy Sweeney with Moving Music
Sweeney Todd at the Criterion Theatre.
Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, until 24 June 2023.
Review by Alison Manning
The Criterion Theatre rarely stage musicals – this is their first since 2015, but they wanted to take on this challenge ‘in honour of the late, great Stephen Sondheim.’ Sweeney Todd and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is quite a challenge for this small amateur theatre but one they have undertaken with zest and enthusiasm, portraying this dark dramatic tale of Sweeney Todd, formerly wrongly convicted and transported Benjamin Barker, who returns to London to find his lost wife Lucy and daughter Johanna and seek revenge on those who separated him from them. He takes up his old profession of barber with a grim twist, aided and abetted by his sidekick Mrs Lovett who is after a cheap source of meat for her pie business.
Despite some slight technical issues at the start, with the loudness of the music drowning out some voices, the powerful music is integral to creating the strong atmosphere of this play. The singing is effective and well executed, the harmonies building. The overlapping songs emphasise the contrasts between the characters, the youthful innocence and ardour of Johanna and her young sailor admirer Anthony contrasting with the older characters with darker desires and motivations.
Mrs Lovett (Raynor Wilson) and Sweeney Todd (Mark Randall)
The freeze frames, where actors pause mid-scene, are well-executed as the action switches between simultaneous scenes, adding to the drama and the ominosity of what is to come. The discrete levels, with an upper floor at one side of the stage for Sweeney’s workplace, and an elevated box at the other side, generally representing Johanna’s room, help differentiate the different sections, making the most of the small stage.
The props and set are deliberately kept to a minimum to place the emphasis firmly on the music in which the strength of the performance lies. As well as the elevated levels, the main item of the set is Sweeney’s clients’ chair, with its infamous tipping mechanism. The backdrop creatively consists of draped white cloths, to which blood-stained rags are increasingly added as the plot progresses. The dim lighting at times adds to the gloomy setting and reflects Sweeney's shadowy dark determination for vengeance.
Sweeney Todd's determination for revenge.
In a cast of twenty-one it is hard to single anyone out, especially in this show where the combined harmonies of the entire ensemble together with the gripping music create the most powerful effect. There are, however, some potent duets suffused with dark humour between Mark Randall as a troubled Sweeney Todd and Rayner Wilson as besotted Mrs Lovett, his unlikely partner. Jan Nightingale also shines in her versatility as the Beggar Women, switching from sorrowful pleading to crazed crooning in her increasingly deranged supplications, before the tense final scenes of this gripping production.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is on at the Criterion Theatre in Earlsdon, Coventry, until 24 June. For more details and to book: www.criteriontheatre.co.uk