Two hours and 55 interminable minutes during which I would happily have slit my own throat. No, that’s the journey from London to Colchester in one of the worst Friday night traffic jams in living memory: Sweeney Todd was much more enjoyable.

In fact, this is a quality production – and with a top price of £27, impressively good value – directed by Colchester’s Daniel Buckroyd sharing resources with Derby Playhouse: his task obviously is to differentiate it from the recent Chichester/Adelphi production, and the baker’s dozen of Sweeney’s I’ve seen since Sheila Hancock and Denis Quilley at Drury Lane in 1980.

Buckroyd presumably has a point to make in being the first director to cast a black actor as the ‘demon barber of FleeT-uh StreeT-uh’, but it’s hard to say exactly what – Hugh Maynard is extremely handsome and charismatic off stage but on stage required to bury his charm beneath Todd’s persistently dour and single-minded revenge against Judge Turpin. His performance is proudly and powerfully sung, but his distinctive looks test the script’s constant references to whether or not people recognise him. Equally, Sondheim’s refusal to allow the character to crack a smile wears you down in the end, especially with Sophie-Louise Dann’s skittish Mrs Lovett capering around him and practically humping his leg for attention like the friskiest of terriers.

Acknowledging that Imelda Staunton wrung all the available pathos out of Nellie Lovett, Dann strikes her own line by playing firmly for comedy: a one-woman task force bringing relief from the pervasive Victorian gloom.

Even if some of it is aimed deliberately way over-the-top – her vamping of Maynard in ‘By The Sea’ would convict her of sexual assault in most courtrooms – she nicely points up Mrs Lovett’s conflicted morality: shrewd enough to profit from cannibalism, prudish enough to want her ‘rumpled bedding legitimised’ by bigamous marriage.

There are some finely detailed performances among the supporting cast – casting director Anne Vosser is one of the most diligent and it’s a real pleasure to see Daniel Buckley furthering his career, Ryan Heenan as a believable Tobias, and some extraordinary voices like Julian Hoult as the most oleaginous of Beadles, Simon Shorten’s near-castrato Pirelli and David Durham’s earthen dark Judge. Even if he does self-flagellate with the smallest possible whip – surely Colchester has a sex shop which could provide something more convincing.

Unfortunately for Christina Bennington despite her best efforts it’s Sondheim’s disdain for Johanna that defeats anyone tackling the part. Written as a one-dimensional simpleton who falls in love at first sight, the music is right on the threshold of human hearing and too unforgivingly high for all but classically trained sopranos.  There are other instances where the score isn’t an ideal match to the singers’ vocal ranges, and some issues of clarity both in diction and in the sound system which mask the intricate and complex lyrics.

In both locations, Buckroyd recruited a ‘community chorus’ of a dozen extras drawn from local amateur theatre companies and choirs: the highest compliment you can pay to the Colchester company is that ‘you can’t see the join’ and they blended perfectly with their professional colleagues.

 

until November 12