Review: Stars shine brightly in Rugby Theatre's vibrant and bold creation

Sweeney Todd, Rugby Theatre, until November 4
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Having spent a lifetime in a profession whose spiritual home remains Fleet Street and with me due to go on a pie-making course in the next few months, I’m not certain this was the ideal choice of Saturday night out inspiration.

But that’s as much nonsense you’ll get in this review – this production of one of Sondheim’s best-loved works is a triumph and one of those Rugby Theatre occasions that will be remembered for many years to come.

There have been other highlights just within this year - but they have undoubtedly saved the best until last.

A view from Sweeney Todd.A view from Sweeney Todd.
A view from Sweeney Todd.

With Sondheim attracting levels of fandom verging on that achieved by Shakespeare and few others, Sweeney Todd is not a challenge to be taken lightly – get it wrong and you’ll hear about it.

But this bold creation by director Timothy Sell had plenty to delight both the hardcore and newcomers. In his programme notes he thanks the cast ‘for going with some of my wilder ideas’ but it was clear the cast had absolute confidence and delight in being part of something special – none more so than in those sliding out of their executioner’s chair to the depths below, in the second half.

The journalistic instinct encourages a dislike of wordiness for the sake of it – but with Sondheim there are words galore and not a single one wasted.

So the key roles are a challenge and much coveted – with characters that need to be sustained over a long time on stage.

And Sell has cast well to bring his specific vision so vividly to life (and death). Steve Mellin will be a newcomer to most in the audience but brings utter conviction as Todd, the returning convict who sees a way to settle old scores, with hints of despair but absolute passion.

Hayley Glover – looking more than a little like the role model for Helena Bonham Carter – was terrific as Mrs Lovett, with her voice and personality stealing many of the scenes.

She was last seen on this stage in Aspects of Love, having a notable impact in a show that seemed to have had its day.

But there are no such doubts about Sweeney Todd and she was key to the vibrancy of this production.

If those two were the stars there were others who shone brightly; Wil Neal bringing wonderful vocal quality to Anthony; Bethany Lea captivating as Johanna; Aaron Evans a fine Tobias; great humour from Kate Sawyer as Beggar Woman and John Harrison as Pirelli.

The list goes on – get yourself a programme – and let’s not forget the ensemble delivering powerful and key moments in the big numbers but also providing vital visual elements.

And as a musical, let’s not forget the musicians who allowed all these talents to thrive. The clarinettist in me wants to give a special cheer for the woodwind players but they were a team and definitely Man City, not United.

A special shout-out too, to Sarah Butt, who is doing BSL interpretation of all that wordiness at two performances.

If you’ve got tickets, treasure them – if you haven’t, you’ve missed out.

Richard Howarth