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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Cox’

My personal history with Sweeney Todd goes back 29 years to a production of Christopher Bond’s play (which Sondheim saw in its original Stratford East production and on which he based his musical) in the now defunct Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green. For the last 21 years I’ve followed the musical around London and to Leeds and Chichester, including the NT, Opera North and the Royal Opera. For my 12th production / 15th performance, I only had a 20 minute walk to Harrington’s Pie & Mash shop (106 years old – London’s oldest) – well, actually the barbers across the road where we assembled for drinks beforehand. A doubly delicious bit of site specific theatre, but so much more than that. This is up there with the best of them.

With an audience of just 32 in the shop’s snug bench seating, this redefines intimate theatre. The whole space is used – on and behind the counter, the stairs and behind the stairs, the tables at which we’re seated. You have to twist and turn a bit, but the tale has never been more thrillingly told. Characters turn up to surprise and shock you, Sweeney’s stare chills you and Mrs Lovett gets laughs where they’ve never been before and bigger ones where they have. By necessity, some things usually staged are here offstage, but so inventively that it hardly matters (and no washing clothes when I got home, unlike the recent Twickenham experience).  Director Bill Buckhurst and designer Simon Kenny have turned every problem and restriction the space presents into dramatic opportunities and a masterclass in intimate staging. It’s scarier and funnier.

I think what blew me away most though was the sky high musical standards. MD Benjamin Cox on piano, with help from occasional violin and clarinet, played the score brilliantly (adding yet more weight to the current debate about awards for Musical Directors). In addition to his exceptional acting, Jeremy Secomb’s vocals were outstanding. Siobhan McCarthy is a terrific Mrs Lovett and I relished her expressions at close quarters and savoured every syllable of her show-stopping song A Little Priest. Nadim Naaman and Grace Chapman are wonderful as Anthony & Johanna, the former singing Johanna and the latter Green Finch & Linnet Bird beautifully. I’ve seen and enjoyed much of Ian Mowat’s work and his performance as Beadle Bamford is one of his best, and one of the best Beadle’s I’ve seen. Duncan Smith has great presence to go with a great voice; a fine Judge Turpin. Pirelli played by a woman must be a first and Kiara Jay, who doubles up as the beggar woman, is excellent. Joseph Taylor makes much more of Tobias, very moving in his Not While I’m Around duet with Mrs Lovett. I’ve run out of superlatives just as I’ve run out of cast, but they were all so good they have to be mentioned.

This would be a good Sweeney in a black box, but it becomes a great one in this space. I feel privileged to have been one of what must only be c.1000 people to see this landmark production. I wish Sondheim could as I’m convinced he’d adore it. A triumph for Tooting Arts Club, a nomadic institution like those other two national theatres in Scotland & Wales, and its producer Rachel Edwards and indeed for Tooting!

 

 

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More colourful than a river pageant and a whole lot more tuneful than a jubilee concert, if I were celebrating the jubilee, this 110 year-old musical / operetta would be my personal highlight. Apparently, at the time of the present queen’s coronation there were 500 productions around the UK! It’s so good, its hard to understand quite why it isn’t produced more often.

The stories of composer Sir Edward German and librettist Basil Hood are linked to Gilbert & Sullivan, to whom the show owes much in style. Hood wrote an operetta with Sullivan after Gilbert moved on and German completed an unfinished operetta with Gilbert after Sullivan’s death. Though neither German nor Hood achieved the fame of Gilbert & Sullivan, based on this show they clearly could have.

Set in the times of the earlier Queen Elizabeth, with the Queen a character (and a silent cameo from Elizabeth II at the curtain call!) the show takes place during a May Day festival where most of the male characters are besotted with the May Queen and everyone is convinced Jill-All-Alone is a witch. Somehow one of Queen Elizabeth’s  ladies in waiting and Sir Walter Raleigh, in love with one another but concealing  it from the Queen as she rather fancies him, turn up (this is musical theatre, after all), as does the Earl of Essex, who uses the opportunity presented by a lost letter to win the Queen for himself. It’s a simple, silly tale, but it provides a good showcase for much fun and some lovely music with very witty lyrics.

Played on the set of the Finborough’s other show with some simple painted backdrops and a handful of props, the design effort focuses on some excellent costumes (and particularly good footwear!) by Sophia Anastasiou. Benjamin Cox heroically plays the entire score on an electric piano and the musical standards are outstanding. I was particularly impressed by Michael Riseley as Raleigh, Nichola Jolley as Jill-All-Alone and Gemma Sandzer as lady-in-waiting Bessie Throgmorton. The comic honours belong to Daniel Crane, whose Walter Wilkins, actor in Shakespeare’s company, was a delight. The ensemble was superb and the choruses were terrific. Alex Sutton’s staging, with 18 actors in the tiny Finborough space, was excellent.

Like Gay’s The Word just a few months ago, this is another lost gem which deserves a much much longer run – one you’ll have to wait for as the present run is now over. Sorry!

 

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