I’ve been to a few of musicals in London’s West End, including seeing a slightly bored cast go through the motions of Miss Saigon as an expensive recreation of the Vietnam War went off behind them. Whilst I love musicals, those glitzy, expensive shows, played night after night in enormous theatres, somehow don’t connect with me the way smaller productions do.
I was therefore intrigued when I found out about a new repertory production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, at the medium-sized Taganka Theatre, renowned for their version of Master and Margarita.
Sweeney Todd isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste – in fact the president of a drama group I was in once derided it as ‘not music’ – but I’ve long been a fan of this “penny dreadful” come to life. With its visceral score and intricately constructed lyrics, the musical manages to transcend its larger-than-life characters and lurid plot. I find myself drawn into believing this unlikely world where it seems reasonable that a wronged man should take revenge by committing serial murder, whilst his lover, Mrs. Lovett, makes the victims into pies. For a work I know so well, there’s a risk that a new production may not live up to my expectations. However, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed the Alexander Frandetti’s Taganka production very much.
The most obvious way this production stands out is that is performed ‘in the round’, with the audience sat at tables around a central stage, as if in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. The made use of the multi-level set pieces around the theatre, but also moved amongst the spectators, carrying mirrors and shiny props reflecting us – suggesting that any of us could become Todd’s victims, or perhaps even Todd himself. People like me, in the cheap seats, had a restricted view, watching some of the action through the scaffolding (see the photo) but this didn’t significantly detract from the entertainment.
The actors and singers gave an excellent account of the challenging score and characters: Petr Markin as Todd was brooding and detached, whilst Alexandra Basova as Mrs. Lovett was charming, humorous and devious, and the supporting cast were also excellent. The production hit the tone of the original in a way that some productions (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), fail to do. The performances felt sincere and fresh, unsurprisingly perhaps, as this was only the third or fourth public performance, and I found myself enthralled and thrilled as the story unfolded. The Russian translation seemed to fit the tone, and managed to emulate the complex rhyming of the original.
As this was not a mega-budget extravaganza, the set was mostly static, and some of the more complex aspects had to be represented more simply – bodies weren’t dispatched through trap-doors and slides: rather, deaths were represented by the character’s coat being hung in an ever-increasing collection around the stage. However, the whole space was brought to life with dynamic lighting effects, highlighting singers’ faces, Todd’s beloved razors and bathing the stage in red as each throat is slit – in fact, I found this approach less distracting than more complex stage machinery would have been, and allowed the more horrific aspects to be implied and not shown (only the most timid should be put off by the 18+ rating they put on the poster).
So, if you prefer your shows to be in a smaller, more intimate setting, I can without hesitation recommend this new production – just don’t be disappointed when a helicopter fails to land on stage.