Sweeney Todd | Union House TheatrePhotos - Vikk Shayen Wong

This year is a landmark year for the music theatre world's greatest living composer, Stephen Sondheim. As he turns 80 years old, companies aound the globe are paying tribute with revivals of some of his much-loved creations.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a masterwork that is both darkly comic and unsettling as its anti-hero slides into madness amidst a cruel world. It is also one of Sondheim's most accessible and deliciously enjoyable creations, given an even wider audience with Tim Burton's recently successful film version. The work itself is operatic in scale and very much a character driven piece, reasons why it has also become a favourite of many opera companies around the world.

For any company to attempt to produce Sweeney and do it justice is a bold move, as the production has many dramatic (and bloody) scenes and requires not just actors who can sing well, but singers who can act well. As with all of Sondheim's work, every line and every word has been very carefully chosen and needs to be delivered clearly.

For a non-professional company, the stakes are extremely high.

Tom Gutteridge, as Artistic Director of Union House Theatre, has jumped fearlessly into the fire and decided that while staging this work can be problematic, there are ways to present it that can capture an audience. Does he succeed? Hmmm.

Being a University/student based company, there are immediate financial restrictions. With lots of scaffolding and a stage jutting out into the audience, the production is given a rougher look, which suits the Industrial Age setting, and for the most successful scenes, the actors are able to perform very close to the audience. Unfortunately the decision not to use any mikes, is a costly one. Most voices are either lost in the action or inaudible when directed to the back of the stage. Very few of these performers has the necessary vocal strength to naturally project to the back row.

Gutteridge's solution to getting rid of the corpses works reasonably well and the use of shadow puppets on a screen is playfully inventive. The final scene in Act Two is both powerful and moving.

Casting is unconventional, as befits such a production, with Sweeney played by an actor of Asian descent and Pirelli, a rival barber & con-man, played by a woman. With such a young cast however, the performances emerge as largely uneven, with some major disappointments. One of these is the crucial role of the Beggar Woman, played here rather unfortunately like a silly schoolgirl. The fact that she is inapproriately dressed like a schoolgirl does not help.

Raphael Wong (Sweeney Todd) and Kimberley Colman (Mrs Lovett) try to master the complexities of their characters, and do have occasional successes, often when they are together on stage. Josh Burton makes a dashing Anthony Hope, but unfortunately cannot be heard when singing away from the audience.

Nelson Gardner is a delight as Judge Turpin with a lovely rich voice and, actually looking the part, lifts each scene he is in. Pretty Woman, which features him and Raphael Wong is a highlight.

For the most part the ensemble manage the singing quite well, while the seven musicians onstage bring to life the rich score.

While this is not an assured production that many purists would like to see, there is much to enjoy in this opportunity to ... attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

Union House Theatre presents
Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Directed by Tom Gutteridge

Venue: Union Theatre, ground floor, Union House, Melbourne University
Dates/Times: 10–11 and 15–18 September at 7.30pm
Matinee: Fri 17 September at 11.30am
Tickets: Full $25/Conc $20/Student Union Members $10
Bookings: union.unimelb.edu.au/sweeneytodd

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