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Bedfordshire Youth Opera

Sweeney Todd, 2001

They told a tale of Sweeney Todd....

After the unusual variety of last September's triple bill, Bedfordshire Youth Opera turned their talents, in their 20th anniversary year, to the awesome challenge of Stephen Sondheim's macabre piece of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd. Are there no limits to this company's ambitions and accomplishments? It would seem not.

From the first chilling bars of the work to its harrowing conclusion, the orchestral playing, acting and singing of all involved showed the kind of passionate commitment we have come to expect. The teeming energy of Victorian London's streets was brought to life in both comic and disturbing detail by a chorus whose precision ensemble work was breathtaking. The barber contest scene, for example, was a hilarious highlight, with its absurd staccato mime accompaniment, and a particularly delicious performance by Dan Smith as Pirelli. The chorus excelled themselves again in their rendition of God, That's Good, which was disgustingly authentic. (How did they manage to consume all those pies, whilst singing so lustily at the same time?) A truly remarkable feature of the production was the versatility of these performers, switching seamlessly from their roles as grave choric commentators to all manner of diverse city creations.

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Against this utterly convincing social backdrop, Sondheim's individualised characters stood out in strong relief. Alan Bowles took the aptly named part of Anthony Hope, and made him a genuinely credible representation of goodness, whose wistful longing for his Johanna wove a thread of brightness amid the gloom. As the object of his affections, Kitty Whately made a most affecting heroine. Trapped in a clever structure suggesting that Johanna had always been a caged bird, she communicated beautifully the pathos of her first aria, Green Finch and Linnet Bird. But she was also more than equal to the panic-stricken love-struck patter song in which her fluttering attempts to escape her situation alternated with entreaties to her sailor to ‘Kiss me!' Small wonder that Tom Wild's Judge Turpin was smitten. His buttoned-up rectitude was shatteringly exposed as sham in the flagellation scene, which was as agonisingly difficult to watch as it must have been to perform. Turpin's odious sidekick, the Beadle, was also given suitably oily life by Chris Phelps, who brought out well the humour of his self-satisfied pomposity.

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At the opposite end of the social scale, Jane Mabbitt's Beggar Woman was a figure of great pathos. Her nightmare visions of a city on fire carried real conviction, and her tragic death seemed the only possible outcome for a woman so terribly damaged by the viciousness of others more powerful than herself. The character of adolescent Tobias Ragg, Todd's unlikely nemesis, must have been equally difficult to play, but Andrew Longland-Meech (ironically, the oldest member of the cast) invested him with a heart-breaking naivety, using his gentle voice to wonderful effect in Not While I'm Around. (Michael Ball's radio rendition of the same song the week before didn't come close………)

The fact that Toby's ballad is delivered to Mrs Lovett, who would like to murder him once he has seen the truth about her grisly business, seems characteristic of the blackheartedness of this tale. And yet the wonder of Julia McLeish's production, and of the performances she drew from the two singers at the centre of this piece, is that they made you see these people as far more than mere monstrous grotesques.

Clare Little's assault on her role was devastatingly funny – A Little Priest, rightly, brought the house down – but it also showed you a woman desperate for a kind of vulgar gentility, and for affection, as By the Sea brilliantly showed. As her partner in crime, Fred Broom was, quite simply, a revelation. Those of us who remember his rollicking performance as the Pirate King a few years ago (and who could forget its thigh-slapping gusto?), or his uproarious Judge in Trial by Jury last year, would not have imagined that this was the same person. He seized this immense part and wrung every last ounce of feeling from it. His Sweeney Todd knew what decency was, could recognise it in others, but had somehow lost touch with it in himself. The horror of his experiences was evident in every note he sang, and in the terrifying deadness so often seen in those odd eyes. But for me, although his lonely brooding presence dominated the show - as it must - the high spot of his performance, and of the show as a whole, was the duet he shared with his enemy Judge Turpin. How typical of Sondheim's approach to his characters that these most repellent sinners should somehow win our sympathy in the yearning duet Pretty Women, where each reveals the torment he suffers as a result of his own obsessive longings.

I could go on reliving the glories of this production, which to see twice was not enough, but I will simply end by thanking the company, and its guiding lights, John Shayler and Julia McLeish, for one of the most satisfying evenings in the theatre I can remember. There is a recording of the original Broadway production on its way to me from America, and I await its arrival keenly, but I do not expect it to eclipse that of Bedfordshire Youth Opera in any way.