Opera della Luna are keen to stress that their new show is not a production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. This demon barber of Fleet Street is based on the original 1847 play, also known as The String of Pearls, and is described as a Victorian melodrama. Given that both the period and the genre are sometimes referred to derogatively, the show could be a tough sell. But the production is funny and well executed and the project interesting.
The script, originally by George Dibdin Pitt, is more than a little silly but it is also exciting – a mix of morality play and thriller. As adaptor and editor, as well as director, Jeff Clarke tackles all his tasks with great skill. And the jobs conflict a little as the action is so crammed it is ludicrous; the coincidences are incredible, never mind adding supernatural touches and a servant pivotal to the plot who never actually appears.
It’s clear treating the show as a comedy is a good idea – and it is well done. If I can’t help wondering what a version of the show that tries to revolt, shock and thrill might be like, the strategy of going for laughs is sound.
The cast know they can’t declaim loudly enough or roll their eyes too often and give admirably energetic performances. Doubling roles is overused for comic effect but adds charm. Matt Kellett and Madeline Robinson embrace their roles as romantic leads. Nick Dwyer has a harder job in the title role and while boos and hisses are encouraged, there were a few too many for my taste. As well as having a fine voice Dwyer makes Todd a smart villain – not mad but motivated by money – and interesting as a result. Stealing the show is another baddie, Paul Featherstone’s Reverend Lupin, who is truly revolting – making your skin crawl while getting a laugh makes for an exceptional performance!
A passionate suspicion of the clergy isn’t the only surprise here – there are also remarkably fearless women, admittedly smaller parts, with Todd’s accomplice Mrs Lovett and a maid both made the most of by Lynsey Docherty. The characters are flat but the cast flesh them out: take the “half-murdered, half-smothered, muffin maker” (what a part) made a satisfying figure with a strong performance from Matthew Siveter.
Despite all this praise, the drama is in danger of dragging at times. The venue itself goes a long way to help the show – the charms of Graces Alley are often a production’s secret weapon – it really is the perfect venue for Sweeney Todd. But it is the music that really makes the night. Appropriate given Opera della Luna’s strengths, the score uses compositions by Michael William Balfe, Julius Benedict and Henry Bishop – all eminent Victorians but now less well known. Skilfully orchestrated by James Widden, the music adds atmosphere, aids the action and comedy, and sounds beautiful. Not Sondheim…but a rarer treat that has appeal.
Until 29 April 2023
Photos by Andy Paradise