REVIEW: Superb singing and pitch black comedy in Demon Barber’s musical

Pictures by by Ray Bailey LRPS
Pictures by by Ray Bailey LRPS

Sweeney Todd by Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, Wednesday, April 9, The Capitol, Horsham

Following last year’s upbeat offerings – Oliver! and The Sound of Music – Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society have gone down a much darker path for their first musical of 2014.

Pictures by by Ray Bailey LRPS

Pictures by by Ray Bailey LRPS

Sweeney Todd tells the grim tale of Benjamin Barker, a barber who was transported after the corrupt Judge Turpin stole his wife. Returning to London after 15 years under the name Sweeney Todd, he learns that his wife poisoned herself. Todd swears revenge and teams up with unsuccessful pie shop owner Mrs Lovett.

After killing a rival barber with his razor, Todd discovers the perfect way to get revenge and dispose of bodies while providing a steady supply of meat for Mrs Lovett’s pies.

The best known portrayals of the antihero in Stephen Sondheim’s musical are George Hearn in the 1980s stage show and Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s 2007 film.

However, Andrew Donovan finds his own take on the character, portraying a hate-filled creature, turned savage by the injustices he has suffered. This is brilliantly conveyed in his ‘Epiphany’ where Todd swears revenge, not just on Judge Turpin (Chris Shanks bringing the loathsome hypocrite to life), but on the whole of humanity. Andrew Donovan practically snarls Sondheim’s lyrics at the audience, switching between his character’s psychopathic rage and unfathomable sorrow over his lost family. It’s chilling to watch and makes it clear why Todd is called the ‘Demon’ Barber.

Despite the tale’s darkness, HAODS’s show contains a lot of humour. After Todd’s ranting, for example, Mrs Lovett (Nikki Bristo on great form) brings Todd back to reality to sing ‘A Little Priest’, a gleefully disgusting song about different types of people and their flavours.

Todd’s modified barber’s chair gets a wonderful response too. The audience gasps at the murders, but can’t help but laugh as the ghastly contraption drops the corpses down a hole.

The comedy is mostly pitch black but there’s some genuine sweetness and light, thanks to Gus Quintero-Fryatt and Holly Diamond as naïve lovers Anthony and Johanna. Both are wonderful singers, handling Sondheim’s intricate melodies with breathtaking skill.

Cameron Rowell, who played one of the children in The Sound of Music, gets a meatier role here as Tobias Ragg and rises to the challenge with his singing and acting. Chris Dale, who usually plays pleasantly eccentric characters, is convincingly menacing as Beadle Bamford – getting only one comedy moment, as Bamford plays the piano.

Stephen Gadd is great as the pretentious barber Pirelli, while Roz Hall plays the Beggar Woman in a way that makes the audience laugh and squirm. She’s rarely the focus of the drama, but she’s often in the background, haunting the production.

Finally, the rest of the cast offer intense performances with the smaller roles, staring into the crowd like lost souls and singing ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ with impressive venom.

Overall then, it’s another triumph for HAODS.

Director Yvonne Chadwell and Associate Director David Hall have pulled this production together beautifully; while Sondheim’s alternately gorgeous and terrifying music sounds great thanks to Brian D. Steel and the orchestra.