Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The tale of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett carries a loaded reputation; from Broadway to Burton, the tale of the “Demon barber of Fleet Street” and his pie-making partner-in-crime has become a household horror story, making it often difficult to revitalise. Shotgun Theatre’s production, however, did not disappoint in its thrilling and refreshing adaptation, boasting an extraordinarily talented band, an impressively crafted set, and a cast that could be straight from the West End. Directed by Jessa Thompson, the murderous tale has been modified with exciting twists, and her feminist reworkings of certain characters are invigorating to an otherwise predictable plot.
The musical is brought to life by its talented cast, a surprisingly large yet harmonious ensemble. The star of the show had to be Katrina Themans as Mrs Lovett, who’s exemplary performance could out-do Helena Bonham-Carter any day. Constantly energetic, shockingly devious and refreshingly funny, Themans’ performance was endlessly entertaining. Her vocals were flawless, and I was particularly fond of her solo number ‘By The Sea’, in which she drew the audience into Mrs Lovett’s chaotic and ecstatic mind. Another favourite was ‘A Little Priest’, brilliantly executed in harmony with Sweeney Todd (Charlie Renwick), and as the pair got drunker, they sparked a hysterical and hilarious energy which drew the audience into their scheme. Through her lovable yet mad nature, Themans had the audience – like her customers – eating out of her hands.
Renwick as Todd was another excellent casting decision, as he performed the broody and turbulent character with surprising emotional depth in both his delivery and demeanour. His strong, deep vocals not only harmonised exquisitely with Mrs Lovett, but gave the show its famous, eery edge, his anaphoric lyrics reminding the audience of the danger pervading London.
Additionally, Ryan Land, as Anthony, exemplified the professional standards of the cast. His youthful vitality brought a nuance to the role not often found, and his vocals were flawless song after song. I also adored the character of Tobias, played by Ferdia Fitzsimmons, who similarly brought an innocent naivety and infectious energy which harshly contrasted the show’s dark and tense plot. The gender reversal of Tobias was refreshing, her demeanour was lovable, and her vocal range – as demonstrated in ‘Not While I’m Around’ – was astounding. I must also praise Steph Mistri-Yiannouka for her insane vocals as Pirelli – the difficulty of which I couldn’t even imagine – and Tom Gardner as Judge Turpin, whose disturbing yet intriguing performance kept the audience on edge.
The character of Johanna, performed by Lucy Kean, received quite the transformation by Thompson. Conventionally portrayed as a passive, naïve, lovestruck woman, Thompson instead provided her with a lot more substance, and Kean’s facial expressions and behaviour provided dimensions not written for the character in script. This Johanna had emotional complexity, and an ambition to escape the patriarchal confines of her present world. This new nature, however, did take a while to fully develop, and I wish other characters reacted a little more to her unconventional outbursts. Nevertheless, Kean’s voice and high vocal range resulted in some of the show’s most beautiful harmonies, such as ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ and ‘Kiss Me’, and the reinvention of her ending gave audiences both horror and humour.
The show, however, would be nothing without its talented band, who performed a consistently flawless set of complex pieces, directed by Ryan Mulgrew. From the delicate twinkling of percussion to the seemingly darker cello and bass, the music brought this show alive, keeping the action moving and the scenes exhilarating. I loved the underlying scores and refrains that reappeared throughout the production, executed with professional perfection, making for a suspenseful performance.
The stage team, managed by Thomas Glover, must be commended for their fantastic work in constructing a multi-storey pie shop/barbers upon the Exeter Phoenix stage. Fit with a functioning execution chair and trapdoor, the audience were in awe of the set, and even tiny props, such as Mrs Lovett using ashes as flour, showed a professional and hilarious attention-to-detail. I do wish, however, that the second staircase on stage had been given similar attention; though I understand the restraints of a student production and the staircase’s need to be multipurpose, the simple metal steps let the otherwise impeccable stage down.
My only other critique of the production could be of personal taste, but I found the setting and costume a little incohesive. In their disorientating fusion of Victorian London with the modern city, I gathered the intention was to provide the tale with a ‘timeless’ feel by placing it in an unidentifiable era. Perhaps I missed the intention, but from a deliberately placed microwave to Victorian cameras and currency, I found the crossover jarring without reward. It also didn’t explain the bizarre Medieval-esque look of Johanna’s wig and costume.
However, these small production critiques do not deter from the utter brilliance of this production. Each song was perfectly executed, and each execution was perfectly sung. Thompson’s refocus of the narrative onto the women of the musical makes for a refreshing, gripping, and exciting adaptation, which the cast and crew should be incredibly proud of.
Sweeney Todd continues to be performed at Exeter Phoenix until Thursday 16th January.