Sweeney Todd

Date 2nd May 2014
Society University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society
Venue Manchester University Students Union
Type of Production Musical
Director Richard Aaron Davies
Musical Director Ben Ferguson


Author: Kevin Proctor

From the moment of stepping into the auditorium which had been specifically constructed for this production, we instantly knew we were about to witness something slightly different. Original ideas and bold creativity had clearly been incorporated into this production which is always an exciting feature.

Reminiscent of Victorian operating theatres – which, back then, were often a form of performance as hoards of students would sit around the operating table to view surgeons (who were in fact Barbers) carry out their gory work, the audience was seated in the same formation with a covered corpse on an operating slab centre stage, ready for an autopsy…? Sort of! The corpse is in fact revealed to be ‘Sweeney’ and we are here, indeed to (eventually) discover the cause of his death – so an autopsy, I suppose it is!

This production doesn’t remain in Victorian England – conceptually, new blood has pumped into the bleak Victorian odyssey by time-shifting the throat-slitting barber into the social disarray of the early 1950s – through the telling of the tale the reasons behind this brave statement were not made clear, however, it has given the production a bold stamp of originality making it stand out from the masses.

As Todd, Tom Isherwood, sings spine-chilling anthems of hatred while calmly dispatching his victims to their pie-encrusted fate - Tom’s voice was so rich and had a gorgeous tender quality it was hard to imagine he’d be so nasty. Jess Ewart portrays a Betty Crocker meets Myra Hindley inspired Mrs Lovett who egg’s Todd on to turn corpses into profit with the ideally delivered “A Little Priest”.

As the body count mounts and the gore (literally) gushes, Oliver Hamilton’s Judge Turpin adds a whiff of pervy corruption, contrasting starkly with Ava Podgorski’s insecure Johanna and Ryan Newcombe’s ardent Anthony.   No tubby tenor in the role of Pirelli here, though the size of his performance certainly makes up for lack of lard! Joe Dickens is wonderfully cheeky and animated as the posing bravado conman.

I would say that as funny as they may have been at the time, we had moments of unwritten humour which detracted from the main action – an ideal example of this was the bird seller who brought the odd chuckle to begin with which was virtuous but later crossed the line when she pulled focus away from what should be an indecent and awkward moment and made it into poor humour, making the action more about her than what the audience should have been focused on.

Direction by Richard Aaron Davies was fresh, modern and inspired. The intimate setting worked so well for this piece, musical theatre is so rarely performed using experimental staging setups (usually due to venue limitations) but when they are, it so often feels as though you’re seeing something special, a one off – magic!

Choreography during “God That’s Good” - where the ensemble of unknowing cannibals demand more pies – was a movement / staging highlight as they stamped feet, twisted shapes on benches and stomped cups on tables in rhythm which was visually appealing.

Ben Ferguson’s orchestra of 27 players was splendid, I was impressed with the control, how such a large quantity of players in such an intimate setting didn’t drown out the vocals. The music gelled with the action and not once did it overtake or distract our focus, you almost forgot they were there which is exactly how it should be. 

Unquestionably, this was an impressive, bold and memorable production which had obviously been created with passion for a show which is so evidently loved.