Magazine article The Spectator

More Head Than Heart

Magazine article The Spectator

More Head Than Heart

Article excerpt


More head than heart

Sweeney Todd

Trafalgar Studios at the Whitehall Theatre

The Night Season


The taste of the public and the critics rarely coincides, particularly when it comes to musical theatre. The loathed and detested Andrew Lloyd Webber has accumulated a fortune of £400 million thanks to the unlettered masses, while Stephen Sondheim hasn't had a Broadway hit since Into the Woods in 1987. This may have something to do with the boy genius's choice of subject-matter.

In the showbiz satire Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini summed up the composer's work to the tune of 'Comedy Tonight':

Something elitist

Something defeatist

Nothing you'd want to underwrite . . .

John Doyle, one of Britain's leading practitioners of actor/musician theatre, has come up with a nifty solution to the underwriting problem: he's masterminded a production of Sweeney Todd that only requires a cast of nine - and they double up as the orchestra. The idea of a musical about Britain's most notorious mass murderer may not appeal to everyone, but watching these nine actor/musicians multitasking their way through a five-star Broadway spectacular is a sight to behold. The mere fact that they pull it off, bracketing the question of whether the play's any good or not, is almost reason enough to see it.

There are other reasons, too. This production originated at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, and John Doyle is as gifted at utilising a small space as he is a limited budget. The action unfolds on one set that, with the smallest of alterations, can switch from a pie shop to a courtroom to a lady's bed-chamber. Needless to say, the poor grunts shifting the scenery are the same overworked wretches who play all the instruments and all the parts. The incredible thing is that they manage to morph in and out of their different roles, discarding a flute there, picking up a coffin here, with an almost preternatural grace. You'd expect this production to be nervy and frenetic, given the multiple demands being made on the performers, but it's extremely fluid.

Is the play itself any good? That depends on your opinion of Stephen Sondheim. Unlike more traditional forms of musical theatre, there's no collaboration between composer and book-writer here. It's just one song after another. The standard criticism of Sondheim is that he's all head and no heart, and that seems particularly true of a tongue-in-cheek gore fest like Sweeney Todd. It's brimming with ingenious rhymes and shifting time signatures, but there's very little for the audience to connect with. …

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