Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 25 March 2019

Dark comedy serves up wit, brio and super-sized meat pies

Steven Page, Julie Mullins in Sweeney Todd at Belfast's Lyric
Steven Page, Julie Mullins in Sweeney Todd at Belfast's Lyric

Katy Hayes

The theatre loves a bad boy. This lesson cannot be learned too often, as Sweeney Todd amply demonstrates. He flashes his razor to hilarious and lethal effect in Victorian London and the audience lap it up.

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's blackly comedic musical relishes its dark heart but is carefully plotted to create a complex combination of sympathy, comedy, and mounting horror. At first, Sweeney wins us to his side with his tale of woe, but as his revenge acquires an indiscriminate splatter-gun quality, and the bodies start piling up, even the most ironical audience starts to feel a tinge of repugnance.

Northern Ireland Opera and Lyric Theatre bring plenty of resources to this crossover musical. First staged in 1979, and an immediate hit on Broadway, it tells the tale of Sweeney Todd, who returns to London following 15 years of penal servitude in Australia.

He was convicted on a trumped-up charge orchestrated by Judge Turpin who lusted after his wife. His wife has seemingly died, but Turpin now has sinister charge of his 16-year-old daughter, Johanna, whom he also lusts after. Sweeney Todd, a barber by profession, retrieves his old blades and sets himself up again in business in rooms above the pie shop belonging to the highly practical and morally flexible Mrs Lovett. Todd then embarks on the task of rescuing his daughter from the villainous Turpin and exacting revenge on his enemies.

Steven Page as Sweeney Todd brings immense dignity to this batty role. His partner in crime Mrs Lovett (Julie Mullins) holds the stage in great style, though at the performance I attended, her microphone crackled annoyingly at times. John Porter as the sailor Anthony Hope, suitor to Johanna, gives a heartfelt performance using his beautiful, honeyed tenor voice to great effect. Mark O'Regan acts well as the villain Judge Turpin, but his singing voice is hopelessly outclassed in this company.

Director Walter Sutcliffe's dynamic use of the Lyric house, with actors popping up in the aisles, is charmingly enhanced by Dorota Karolczak's extension of the auditorium's wood panelling on to her stage set. Karolczak's designs of both costume and set are marvellously inventive and rise splendidly to all the technical and macabre challenges, including the disposal of bodies, the cooking and eating of many meat pies, and the myriad and simultaneous locations.

This offers all the satisfactions of musical Grand Guignol. It is a thoroughly enjoyable show, serving up wit, brio and super-sized meat pies.

 

Glasgow teens on a musical mission

Glasgow Girls

Abbey Theatre, Dublin Until tonight

Produced by Scottish companies Raw Material and Regular Music, the Abbey presents this topical touring musical about a group of Glasgow schoolgirls who campaign to prevent the deportation of their pal, a Kosovan girl called Agnesa.

The Home Office has deemed Kosovo safe for refugees to return, though this is not true for Agnesa's Roma community. The show is based on real-life Glasgow teens who campaigned in 2005 on behalf of their asylum-seeking friends and neighbours.

The urgent story of Agnesa is resolved at the end of the first half, and after that the drama dissipates. The show opens out to include the then Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell, who is dramatised primarily by being put in a sparkly jacket. A mother and her child, refugees from Afghanistan, are poorly sketched. The result is a series of episodic, well-meaning musical scenarios that have little dramatic build. A joke about the headmaster pretending not to hear things gets repeated a few times too often. Conceived and directed for the stage by Cora Bissett, with the book by David Greig, it feels like the creators ran out of steam - unlike the original campaigning teenagers, who had plenty of it. Good politics sometimes make bad theatre.

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