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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim’

Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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When I walked into the Menier and took my seat, my reaction was the same as it was for the Bacharach Reimagined show last year. Designer Derek McLane has turned it into a magical, even more intimate space. There’s a proscenium made of piano keyboards, side ‘walls’ of grand piano innards, a back wall of ropes, three or four deep, representing the woods, and eight chandeliers above the stage and the front of the auditorium. Lovely. The show was lovely too, a very original and inventive small-scale take on Sondheim’s deceptively moral show.

It weaves the well known tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood with the less well-known (well, here at least) Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. The Baker has to find a white cow, red cloak, golden slipper and yellow hair to break the witches curse on his barren wife. By the interval, the baker’s wife is no longer barren, Cinderella and Rapunzel each marry a prince and Jack has solved his family’s money problems, but Cinderella’s sisters are blind, the wolf is dead, the witch has lost her powers and turned into a beautiful woman and the giantess is really pissed off! In the much darker second half Cinderella loses her prince, the baker his wife, Little Red Riding Hood her grandma and Jack has to decide what to do about the giantess.

The production has a storytelling quality totally in keeping with the material, more of a play with music, without the staginess of much musical theatre. This brings even more charm to the lighter moments, plunging into a deeper darkness in the second half. The moral of the tale comes over much more strongly. With five of the hugely talented cast doubling roles, and all playing an array proper and improvised instruments, it is all told, sung and played by just ten actors, including co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, and pianist Evan Rees. They’ve all brought the show over from the US and we appear to be benefiting from an ensemble who have worked on it for some time in more than one incarnation.

This is an original and imaginative interpretation, an excellent addition to my collection of nine productions. Definitely one for other Sondheim fans to see and a great introduction to those who don’t know the work or who have only seen the film.

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This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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Opera companies are attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece and it’s easy to see why, though it’s been to mixed success. I’ve seen it done by Opera North and at Covent Garden. This year, ENO imported a New York production, though more of a concert, and with only one kosher opera singer. Now it’s Welsh National Opera’s turn. I’ve also seen ten productions by theatre companies (two of them four times each) so you could say I’m familiar with and fond of the piece! WNO is also my ‘opera home’.

The production is an import from the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a sort of industrial building with two double-height containers for the barber’s shop and Joanna’s bedroom. The chorus are the inhabitants of Bedlam. The setting isn’t Victorian, but more recent, with hints of the 50s / 60s in some of the props and costumes. One of its best ideas is fake barber / faux Italian Pirelli’s use of a Reliant Robin. The stage seemed much further away than it has when I’ve sat in similar seats for the opera on many occasions here before.

One of the chief pleasures of opera company productions is the musical standards and here the orchestra shine. Even though I’ve seen it work perfectly well with little more than a piano, the full orchestra brings out every nuance of the score. Using opera singers is sometimes less successful, though Janis Kelly is a fine Mrs Lovett and Steven Page an excellent Judge Turpin, neither falling into the opera singer trap of putting vocal perfection above lyrical clarity. Kelly is a good actress, with good comic timing too, and Page is suitably intimidating, with great presence. I also liked Paul Charles Clarke’s Pirelli. Soraya Mafi was less successful as Joanna, with a voice that was too high and too operatic. During God, That’s Good the chorus chewed the lyrics as opera choruses sometimes do.

Three roles are cast by musical theatre performers, with London fringe favourite Jamie Muscato a particularly good Anthony and George Ure delivering as Tobias, particularly in his duet with Mrs Lovett, Not While I’m Around. The weak link, I’m afraid, is David Amsperger’s Sweeney, with an inappropriate mannered performance style and nowhere near enough menace (though I have been spoilt by having Jeremy Secomb staring me in the face and scaring the pants off me on four occasions in the past thirteen months in Tooting Arts Club’s Pie Shop Sweeney). He also lost a few too many lyrics when it mattered, notably in A Little Priest.

Good to see (at a fraction of the price of ENO’s unstaged American import), but overall both the Twickenham and Tooting Sweeney’s of the last year or so have delivered more. Perhaps its time for opera companies to stick to opera?

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I wasn’t going to blog this because I considered it a concert and I confine those to my monthly round-ups (life’s too short!). I changed my mind because it’s more than a concert, I’ve got a lot to say about it and I woke up with it going round in my head. I’ve seen this show more than any other, including Pimlico Opera, The Royal Opera and Opera North (with Welsh National Opera already booked for later this year), but mostly fully staged by theatre companies, latterly Chichester Festival Theatre, the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Harrington’s Pie Shop here in Tooting, now ‘up west’ and I will confess to being a touch biased, though still I think objective.

I was in the US when the original US ‘production’ was aired on PBS, but it was timed for the east coast and I was on the west coast and couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. It starts as a seemingly straightforward concert with the orchestra on stage and the singers mostly in DJ’s and gowns. In a superbly audacious move, they throw down the scores, overturn the music stands, tear off the formal clothes and generally rough the place up. What follows is semi-staged with a few props, some cleverly purloined from the orchestra, banners from the boxes announcing the location of the scenes and a graffiti backdrop. It works, but it isn’t staged.

One of the chief pleasures is hearing this score from a full orchestra on stage; it does sound brilliant. The chorus too is full throated (sorry!) and by moving around the stage and auditorium it animates the ‘staging’. I’m a huge fan of Bryn Terfel and I’ve seen him as Sweeney before, in another semi-staged production at the Royal Festival Hall. His booming baritone suits the role superbly, though he isn’t as scary as he was closer up at the RFH (or as Scarpia in Tosca) and his operatic style of singing sometimes loses words, as opera singers often do. Emma Thompson proves to be a terrific comic actress, relishing Mrs Lovett’s brilliant lines and lyrics, though I’ve seen better vocal Mrs Lovett’s. It’s great to see Philip Quast again and he’s wonderful as the Judge, as is John Owen-Jones as Pirelli and Katie Hall as Johanna, singing the role beautifully. I’m also a fan of Alex Gaumond, but I thought he was too young and not oily enough as The Beadle, and the Beggar Woman isn’t a role which does justice to Rosalie Craig’s extraordinary musical theatre talent. Matthew Seadon-Yoiung and Jack North were good rather than great as Anthony and Tobias respectively, the later with a very off-putting Rod Stewart wig whilst working for Pirelli!

It was a much-hyped show and the audience reaction was ecstatic, saving the biggest ovation, quite rightly, for Mr Sondheim himself. I’m very glad I went, though I don’t consider it the pinnacle for this show that some do. I wasn’t as scared and I didn’t laugh as much as I did down the road and that’s the one I would return to – and will, fully accepting accusations of bias.

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Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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This was always the most audacious of musicals. A show about nine men and women who tried to assasinate eight US presidents, four successfully, five not. Now it gets an audacious production by Jamie Lloyd at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it feels like it’s just been written. A lot of madness has passed under the bridge since the UK premier 22 years ago and it resonates much more today.

The show can sometimes feel more like a song cycle, with each assassin stepping forward to do a turn, but here it feels more like a show. The Proprieter, in gothic clown make-up referencing the American flag, presides over his fairground come shooting range, handing out guns and standing in for presidents. The thoroughly wholesome Balladeer, as American as apple pie, narrates through his song. Here he seems like a 60’s folkie, somewhat appropriate given the closing scene. Assassins tell their stories and commit their crimes whilst we struggle to comprehend their motivation, and this is where Jamie Lloyd’s production stands out, in the psychological depth that emerges. It’s a fascinating piece which subverts the musical form to great effect, not least in the final chorus of Everybody’s Got the Right.

You enter the theatre through the mouth of a clown into what seems to be a disused gothic fairground, with a dodgem and bits of rides, in a traverse setting (design by Lloyd’s regular collaborator, Soutra Gilmour). The success (or otherwise) of each assassination is cleverly marked. It’s louder, brasher and more in-yer-face than any other production I’ve seen. It’s not entirly comfortable and not at all safe, as I think it should be. It can jar with lovers of tradition in musicals. It seems as radical today as it did in 1992.

Jamie Parker, hot on the heels of his Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls at Chichester, is outstanding as the Balladeer (and his other role!), as is Simon Lipkin (one of the best things about the ill-fated I Can’t Sing) as the Proprietor; they anchor the piece whilst the stories of the assassins unfold and interweave. Andy Nyman is terrific as a manic, unhinged Guiteau, who kills James Garfield because he won’t make him Ambassador to France. Aaron Tveit is a fine John Wilks Booth, assassin of Lincoln and father of them all, with great presence and in fine voice. I worried about the casting of Catherine Tate, but she suited the character of dotty Sarah Jane Moore. Stewart Clarke as Zangara and David Roberts as Czolgosz also impress, with excellent characterisations.

This has been a good year on the fringe and off-West End for Sondheim lovers – brilliant Sweeneys in Twickenham and Tooting, Pacific Overtures at the Union, Into the Woods in Walthamstow, the compilation shows Putting it Together & Marry Me a Little at St. James Theatre and now this to end the year – an Assassins for our times, a fresh look at an underated show.

 

 

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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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Into the Woods is a challenge for any theatre company, even more so for a fringe company with limited resources and often less experienced performers. So well done Rose & Crown for having the balls – just before the film will hit our screens too.

Sondheim weaves a number of fairytales into one narrative – well known ones like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack & the Beanstalk and less well known ones like Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. In order to break the spell that has left his wife barren, the baker has to find a red cloak, yellow hair, white cow and gold slipper, which of course are all available from the other characters, at a price. They get on the wrong side of the giantess after Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals stuff, which means they have to work to rescue the situation – those that remain, anyway. What starts with a light touch gets ever so dark and it ends as a morality tail. It’s a masterpiece of musical theatre.

With what is clearly a shoestring budget, designer Gregor Donnelly has created a surprisingly large playing space in this room above a pub that looks like a children’s adventure playground. It’s amazing what you can do with some pallets, a few ladders, camouflage netting, hessian sacks and a whole load of wood chips. The narrator seems to be a workman and Jack and his mum have become very chavvy. I liked the way Tim McArthur’s staging used this space, even though a far side view wasn’t ideal, with particularly quick and surprising entrances.  Aaron Clingham’s five-piece piano – strings – woodwind ensemble played the score beautifully. The choruses sounded great, but the solo vocals were variable and some of the intricate ensemble pieces were a touch ragged. I missed some of the lyrics because the balance wasn’t ideal from my position near the band – but ideal to hear the quality of the playing.

The show overran significantly – just under three hours – which in a hot space with not particularly comfortable seating didn’t help, but it’s an ambitious undertaking and they just about pulled it off. Whatever I think, the full house roared their approval and they clearly have a well-earned hit on their hands.

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