Halloween horror started a day early at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter tonight. Rob Luke & Lewis Law's 'Hot Rock Productions' presented their new performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd", Directed by David Finlay with Music, and Movement, Direction by Tom Arnold & Mai-Lin Hagiwara. A host of local singing and acting stars, and some relatively new faces took part in this breath-taking tale of terror.
In Hugh Wheeler's version of the story, Todd returns from transportation to Australia rather like Magwitch in Dickens' "Great Expetations". In this case, however, the intention is not to reward a young benefactor - but to exact revenge on a sworn enemy. As a plan to murder turns to a career of mass-murder, the story starts to resemble a compelling argument in favour of transportation for life.
An extensive ensemble of chorus singers introduce and narrate the action with elaborate set routines. The shaving competition is outstanding - as is the public reception of Nellie's new line in pies. The central characters are all played by local actors of impressive pedigree, who each carry their rôle with impressive style, both acting and singing spectacularly.
Rising head and shoulders above this already stellar cast are Mike Hamilton and Emma Williams as the barber Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd) and his pie-making partner in crime Nellie Lovett. The steely determination and unbending devotion to violence of Todd is countered by Nellie's (almost) unquenchable optimism and sense of humour.
Matt Colson and Josie Tapp, as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, are superb, and their clean-cut virtue stands in stark contrast to the amoral decadence of the other characters. Nigel Broome as Judge Turpin is a particularly sordid and lustful caricature of Mozart's Bartolo in "The Barber of Seville" - determined to exploit his power in order to control or destroy his ward Johanna. His henchman Bamford is played by the outstanding James Billington, a pompous Beadle that Dickens would recognise, with a side line in fabulous comic songs.
For all-out comedy Daniel McLoughlin, as competing coiffeur Adolfo Pirelli, gives a magical performance with some very special special effects. His long-suffering apprentice Tobias Ragg is very engagingly portrayed by a young student, Laurie Walker. (Josie and Laurie are both students of Emma Williams - who is Head of Performing Arts at Clyst Vale Community College.) Throughout the play, a very wretched and terrifying beggar woman provides additional narration like a prescient harpy. Cathy Poole is that beggar woman - having started her acting career as Johanna in Hot Rock's previous production of Sweeney Todd. Don't forget John Nash and Steve Vernon. After modelling a perfect shave and tooth extraction for Todd, they each reappear with parts of their own, Steve playing Johanna's abusive captor Jonas Fogg in the closing scenes.
Musically, this is a fabulously complex production. Tom Arnold's orchestra includes trumpet (Alex Pace), French horn (Catherine Edington), clarinet (Beatrice Wyles) - and baritone saxophone (James McGregor). Percussion (Louis Brown) and piano (Tom Arnold) augment the on-stage sound effects, and the plaintive violin of Kate Smethurst overlays many emotional and terrifying scenes. Continuo is provided by Alex Soul ('cello) and Callum Heighton (electric bass). The singing is excellent - although the unamplified ensemble members sometimes struggle a little in the Barnfield's acoustic. Movement Director Mai-Lin Hagiwara has worked in some very neat movement work and dance routines, which the chorus perform with gusto. Several of the ensemble, including Judyth Aarons, John Nash, and Rebecca Willson, sing very impressive solo parts as well.
As the action progresses, Sondheim's complex canons and counterpoints increase in complexity, challenging the cast and audience to keep pace. Now that all their hard work has come to fruition, with this week's show at the Barnfield, we can see for ourselves just how comprehensively and exquisitely the whole cast has risen to that challenge.
This show runs until Saturday, every evening with a matinée on the last day. Full details below.
Hot Rock Productions
Exeter Barnfield Theatre
|Exeter Barnfield Theatre|
Judyth Aarons, Lizzie Bialyk,
Laura Crook, Carrie Dyer
Saturday Matinée: 4 Nov 2.30pm
(The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)
Director: David Finlay
Musical Director: Tom Arnold
Movement Director: Mai-Lin Hagiwara
Original Story: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Stage Adaptation: Christopher Bond
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunic
Tickets: £16.50 (U17 £14.50)
Monday & Matinée: All £14.50
Box Office: 01392 271808
..........Weekdays 10am - 4pm
...........Saturdays 10am - 2pm
Online Booking: TicketSolve