Sondheim’s epic musical – made famous by Tim Burton’s goth-tastic film with Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp – began life on stage with less guy-liner and whispered emotions, and more sex and gore. What the Just So Society’s latest production offered was a bit of both: bawdy humour and big camp chorus numbers mixed with earnest solos and fingerless gloves. For the most part, director Kyra Ho’s production for On The Rocks in the Byre succeeded in making this mixture a thoroughly enjoyable evening out.
There is no point beating around the bush: Alice Gold as Mrs Lovett was the undisputed star of the show. She was grotesquely comic and never missed a beat or faltered in the face of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky music. On top of this, she managed with alacrity the incredibly difficult job of appearing to be a bad singer when one has, in fact, an unrivalled set of pipes.
This was only problematic in her frequent duets with Duncan Bristow in the title role. He could hold a tune and provided an all-round decent performance, but Bristow had been directed to be a brooding and un-dynamic Sweeney. This worked nicely in moments like his dark solo “My Friends” but became tricky when he was faced with Gold’s boundless energy in numbers like “A Little Priest”. Of course, the point of Sondheim is often to unsettle the audience and there is a certain Brechtian alienation effect at work in watching two actors with completely different styles perform together. Regardless of the reasoning behind this choice, it made the sincerity and emotion behind Sweeney’s revenge storyline ring false, while Gold was resorted to outdoing herself to make up for what Bristow lacked.
The rest of the cast were solid, the live chorus a shining reminder of why musical theatre can never compare to a musical film. A life narrated by a group of emo-Victorians who stride after you with great purpose wearing too much make-up and singing four-part harmony is a life worth living. I personally have never had much time for the Joanna/Anthony love story, but butter-wouldn’t-melt performances from Thomas Halvorsen and Seonaid Eadie were sweet enough to keep me invested. Coggin Galbreath was wonderfully pathetic as Toby, tugging at my heart-strings as the show developed to its gruesome conclusion. Andrew Mundy was on excellent form as Pirelli, and Alex Schellekens was a suitably creepy and petulant Judge – for those moments where he was not encumbered by an enormous judge’s wig reminiscent of Sandy’s perm at the end of Grease (anyone?).
The choice of meta scaffolding as set was a little incongruent with the (mostly) accurate nineteenth-century costumes and feel of the show, and overall the space could have been used a little better. I appreciate the limitations of both student theatre finances and the Byre, but it was also a real shame that no good solution could be found for surely the most iconic part of the show: Sweeney’s barber’s chair which tips and sends his victims to the basement to be chopped up for pies. Even a blackout or some sort of blood effect would have been fitting, but instead Sweeney’s victims either enjoyed bizarre last-minute rescues or else their death was indicated by nothing more than a flash of red light and their scuttling off-stage.
Despite this, the tech overall was remarkably smooth, especially for a first night, and any small hiccups were dealt with professionally. The music, performed seamlessly by a live band, and the microphone levels, often difficult to get right, were faultless. Only a couple of times did I miss a line of dialogue or a solo sung line, but mostly the cast played to the nearly-full Byre Theatre with enthusiasm and full voices.
Sweeney Todd’s programme lists an enormous amount of people, and it would be impossible for me to properly acknowledge each aspect of the show. Nevertheless, everyone involved should be extremely proud of what they have created.
STARS: * * *