Monday, 7 November 2011

You sir... how about a shave?

I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with my Sondheim obsession once more you poor things... because GUESS WHAT'S ON! Yes... what else could it be but;
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
And you can all blame my Uncle, who just happens to be the best one in the world.
I reviewed the National Youth Music Theatre's version (see the review here) in the summer, but I have never seen a full professional production of it before (no offence to the very talented guys in the NYMT!) so you can imagine my indecent levels of excitement when, on my birthday, I opened a card to find an invitation to the Chichester Festival Theatre to see the Demon Barber and his pie-baking accomplice at work...
So off we went! On Thursday! Starring were Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, and the usually adorable, cuddly Michael Ball as Sweeney. Now I knew she'd be perfect, but I wondered what they were going to do about Michael's instantly loveable features.
I'll show you just what they did; look at this snapshot!       > > > > >
Scary. His slicked hair, hollowed eyes and sharp beard really suited Sweeney; and of course Imelda Staunton's little, bawdy, busybody Nelly Lovett complimented him perfectly! She was incredibly funny, adding her own quirks to the already quirky character, but still in fact much darker than, say, Angela Lansbury's rather music hall characterisation in the original cast. Right at the end, when Sweeney pretends to forgive her for deceiving him (before throwing her into the fire) Staunton's Mrs Lovett was still frightened; she knew that she wasn't going to get out of this one, no matter what he said, and it was this genuine fear and realisation of what she has unleashed in him that was so subtle, and yet so central to the character. Ball's Todd had a real East End twang to his voice, something I'd not really heard, and it suited him. He had the right balance of malice, black humour, and finally, psycho, that it needed, and it really struck all the right chords; together, they worked like a dream. I could watch them all day.
What struck me at first was the time frame; Sweeney Todd is set in dark, dirty, Victorian London. This production, however, was set in dark, dirty, blitzed East End London, and the transition was remarkably smooth; 40's London also had buildings that were liable to collapse at any moment (the balcony above the stage looked hauntingly good as a round, tiled, bombed train station), a shortage of food and generally uncertain hygiene among the poor. The new timeline was a fantastic idea, giving it a real edge, and making it stand out vividly from other productions. In the spoken lines some changes had been made ('shillings' to 'quid' e.t.c) but there were still moments where the Victorian shined through; the Judge sentences a man to hang for thieving... Sweeney has been transported for life to Australia... the madhouse is named 'Bedlam'; and it is of course the madhouse, that quintessentially Victorian obsession, that is the biggest sticking point. Those horrific asylums had moved on considerably by the Forties, with the First World War sparking research into mental health, but really, the rest of the tale is so filled with horror, that historical accuracy stops making a difference. If Johanna must be sent to a madhouse, by God, it is going to be a recognisably nightmarish one!
And of course, the music; Sondheim's music gives me the shivers, and then it makes me laugh. My favourite song, 'A Little Priest', where Todd and Mrs Lovett merrily discuss the different flavours of human that will grace her pies after he's dispatched the unfortunate souls was brilliant, and always seems to be an audience favourite. The shivers come mainly when the chorus are working their magic. Sondheim commented that he hates hearing choruses that are just one melody being sung by all; he thinks it implies that all the characters have the same thought, and that that's silly. While I'm all for the chorus of 'There's Nothing Like a Dame' in South Pacific, the way Sondheim brings so many layers into the chorus, or indeed into any line, gives it a very unearthly quality and is part of his unique, instantly recognisable sound. In the final bars of the musical, the grille went up at the back of the stage and we see Todd enthroned on his barber chair - in the same position as when we first see him but this time with the added devil on his shoulder, Mrs Lovett - and the chorus warned us that he could be right next to us, 'perhaps today you gave a nod / to Sweeney Todd', and I got the shivers as suddenly, with their dissonant chord humming in the background, one by one, they spotted him high on his throne, and pointed, accusingly; 'There! There!'
It's coming to London! Hurrah! Chichester (who have been hogging it for far too long, in my opinion) have let us have it! I will be constantly checking theatre sites and gearing up my Sondheim buddy - everyone needs one - for a trip.

West End Girl x
(becoming a bit of a misnomer... promise I'll be back in London next time!)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

What the Dickens!

Hoorah, hoorah, just like I promised, A NON-MOANING POST! And it's all thanks to three things; that wonderful seaside town of Brighton, the inimitable Simon Callow, and (extraordinarily, considering my dealings with him at GCSE) a certain Charles Dickens.
Early in the summer (not that we had much of one) I went to see Simon Callow in 'Being Shakespeare' at Trafalgar Studios. It was essentially the life and times of Shakespeare, along with some of his more famous speeches, rolled into two-and-a-bit hours; and it was fantastic. Though it may seem dry when described simply, Callow's rolling, rumbling voice and intense style was utterly perfect. He shone. It was rather unfortunate that one of our party fell asleep due to strong red wine lemonade, but even he admitted that he was sorry he'd missed it. Anyway, I got a history lesson, a biography, and some fabulous Shakespearean acting all in one evening.
Dr Marigold

And by George he did it again! In the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I had seen Simon Callow in 'Dr Marigold & Mr Chops', a one-man play, with two characters, both of Dickens' creation. Callow entered first as an old circus master (telling us he was 'appy to see us and hhhentry would cost us a shilling) and told of the dwarf Mr Chops, a troubled man with dreams of 'entering socie'y'. After the interval, he entered as Dr Marigold, a cheap jack on the road around England.
I had forgotten the power in Callow's performance, and am forever glad that I got to see this a second time, three years later. Dickens (who I find immensely depressing and hard work) was suddenly transformed by Callow into a rich, deep tapestry of the Victorian underworld. Pictures were painted so vividly before my eyes, I stopped seeing Callow; all I could see was Marigold's cart, and his stunning adopted daughter, both deaf and dumb. All I could see was the dark dingy inside of the Circus building, the fading posters, the elegant crowd, forever hard to please.
Callow telling us of Mr Chops
It is testament both to Callow's extraordinary story telling skills, and Dickens' prose. It was all meant to be read aloud. Think about it; 'Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.' That pause, signified only by a comma in the first sentence, when read aloud, can be laden with all sorts of emotions. Mystery, fear, excitement, everything, comes from the speaker pausing, just for the right amount of time, to allow those who know what's coming to shiver and smile, and those who don't to glance at each other as if to say 'Does the pause mean there's some question as to how dead he is!?' It's perfect Victoriana macabre, perfect for dark evenings by a flickering fireside.
Callow captures all this and more. His characterisations are so utterly believable that his transformation (with the help of a fabulous wig) in the second half doesn't halt at all, because it is not the same man onstage. His grasp of Dickens' style is beyond me; anyone who can make so much sense and emotion out of the puntuation-less, endless sentences I struggle through deserves a medal.
The minimal set that has been built around Callow is fine, but unnecessary. This man could carry this at the same tip-top rate that he does with a black stage and a single chair. As it is, the deep colours, faded woodwork, and odd cog and spring do envoke the dingy Victorian setting, but Dickens and Callow re-iterate this all anyway through their words.
The power that pulsed from that stage blew me away; My eyes were both fixed on the man onstage, but still far away, watching the story play out before me. There is no feeling better than that, being swept utterly away. Please, go, he's touring, and I hope he's touring near you. If, like me, you moan and say 'It's Dickens. An evening of just Dickens. And not even famous Dickens! I think I'm cleaning the cats boils that evening, sorry', you, especially youshould go!
The Theatre Royal in Brighton was perfect too, with its gold gilt and red velveteen chairs. I've got the shivers all over again, thinking about my evening spent on lonely English country roads, and smokey Victorian alleyways.
Perfect for Halloween.

West End Girl x