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Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama at Wilton’s

I had never thought the story of Sweeney Todd could pass off as a crowd-pleaser, but then Victorian melodramas, if this production is anything to go by, are markedly different from contemporary melodramas. There’s much more of a comedy element, as the audience finds itself laughing at expressions of heightened emotions rather than feeling sympathetic towards whoever it is expressing them. “Please note this is NOT a production of the musical by Stephen Sondheim,” the venue’s website states, in bold type. Neither is it melodramatic in the sense that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is melodramatic, and this show is one of those rare occasions outside the British tradition that is pantomime that the antagonist – in this instance, the title character (Nick Dwyer) – is on the receiving end of boos and hisses. At one point he even appeared to encourage a more vocal audience response.

Sweeney Todd - the Victorian Melodrama at Wilton's. Photo credit Andy Paradise.
Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama at Wilton’s. Photo credit Andy Paradise.

This may not, I appreciate, be your cup of tea. But one could, ultimately, get away with not booing at all. You’re not going to get personally called out for keeping quiet. And truth be told, at the risk of sounding joyless, it did get rather repetitive after a while anyway. Anyway, the orchestra, ably conducted by Toby Purser, is larger than the cast, a point somewhat over-explained in a late scene where the absence of a character was noted, because (according to the cast list) twenty characters are shared between seven actors, precipitating a swift costume change and a re-emergence as someone else. But the joke was wearing thin by the fifth time in about as many minutes as someone yet again left the stage for a quick character swap.

The sound effects are all, as far as I could tell, created by the musicians, making, for example, the noise of a trapdoor being opened or a regular door being locked sound remarkably authentic, and crystal clear. The local vicar, Reverend Lupin (Paul Featherstone) doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches. Whether that’s a stereotype or not would depend to some extent, I suppose, on one’s experience with people of the cloth, though given the relatively high standing that clergymen enjoyed in Victorian society, I’d say his conduct is unusual.

The original scores used in the 1847 production, called The String of Pearls, didn’t survive. An article in the show’s programme suggests that “archives and records” of many productions from the era were destroyed thanks to bomb damage in the Second World War. Plenty of music scores from nineteenth-century melodramas is still available, so the production team effectively picked what they considered to be most appropriate melodies from a large selection of compositions. It works well, such that the cast can be heard just as clearly when speaking dialogue over the orchestra playing as they can whenever unaccompanied. That there are breaks in the music makes a significant difference, in a positive way: there isn’t a relentless underscore, so the music has the impact it should have when it comes to key moments in the plotline.

The language in the dialogue is accessible throughout, and the vocabulary is rich, though it would be, as it was from an era when characters just didn’t ‘eff, cee and effing cee’ their way through a play. I loved the putdowns prior to Todd getting his comeuppance, with Thornhill (Matt Kellett) telling him that “thy hour of reckoning is nigh”, and Colonel Jeffries (also Featherstone) denouncing him as a “vile deserter of decency”. There’s cheering from the stalls and the circle as good triumphs over evil, and whether justice really would have been administered in the manner this play with songs does is beside the point, if only because the whole thing is more than a little surreal.

Thankfully, the second half felt pacier and more engaging than the first. There are marvellous sopranos in Caroline Kennedy and Lynsey Docherty, and the costume department does well in this production too, with members of the military, shop workers and domestic servants (amongst others) all dressed as one would reasonably expect them to be. Given the dark storyline, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable experience, both bizarre and bombastic, and worth seeing – even if it’s just to get a different take on a well-known story.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared on the stage in 1847, in a melodrama at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, in the east end of London.

The String of Pearls, as it was called, was based on a popular “penny dreadful” serialised story.

Theatres like the Britannia at that time had large permanently employed orchestras, and the first Sweeney Todd would have been performed with a score of orchestral music.

Opera della Luna’s new production restores the musical element of story-telling with an orchestra of ten musicians, and music penned by British opera composers of the Victorian age.

Come and be shocked, terrified, and amazed; and most important of all: hiss the villain, – the notorious Fiend of Fleet Street!

Please note this is NOT a production of the musical by Stephen Sondheim.

Running time: 2hrs 20mins, plus interval.

Cast:Nick Dwyer (Sweeney Todd)Caroline Kennedy (Tobias Ragg)Lynsey Docherty (Mrs. Lovett/Cecily Maybush)Madeline Robinson (Johanna Oakley)Matthew Siveter (Jarvis Williams/Ben the Beefeater)Paul Featherstone (Rev. Lupin/Jonas Fogg)Matt Kellet (Mark Ingestrie/Jean Parmine)Creative team:Director Jeff ClarkeConductor Toby Purser

Sweeney Todd – the Victorian Melodrama at Wilton’s
presented by Opera della Luna
https://www.wiltons.org.uk/

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