Saturday, 13 August 2016

Sweeney Todd, ANU Interhall Productions and ANU School of Music, ANU Arts Centre

Student theatre has its limitations. Mostly that the casting pool tends to be, mysteriously enough, students, meaning that you end up with most of your cast somewhere in the age range 18-23 - which can get problematic when they're meant to be playing parents and children. Still, this is theatre we're talking about, not strict realism, so a certain amount of suspension of disbelief should be brought to the table anyway.

And Sondheim's musical thriller is a classic of the genre - an updated Victorian-era thriller that combines the pulpish thrills and scares with a tight revenge structure. It's pretty much unique as the only major slasher-musical I can think of (maybe Phantom, although he has a much smaller body count). And it uses the music for maximum tension, drawing at least as much from Bernard Herrmann as Rogers and Hammerstein. Gowrie Varma's production works very well at establishing a disconcerting atmosphere where dark deeds are certain to happen, and then allows the deeds to be exactly as dark as we'd feared they were going to be.

Key among the performers is Spencer Cliff in the title role. He has astounding vocals for such a young performer and has a great way of seeming midly off - closed and brooding. His movement is perhaps a little stiff and he doesn't always commit to the grand moments (his "My Right Arm is Complete Again" doesn't quite get to be as glorious a moment as it surely needs to be), but he has the basics of the role down quite well. George Juszcyzk as Mrs Lovett joins him in oddness, and has the vocal dexterity to handle the tricky "Worst Pies in London" (although her "By the Sea" suffers a little in comparison), but she's a powerful comic and coniving presence. Will Collett as Anthony has the handsome hero down pat - he's charming, handsome, and sings gogeously. Amy Jenkins' Joanna similarly sings with great beauty and sensitivity, and disappears down into the rabbit hole of insanity with aplomb as the second act complications start to set in. Colin Balog's Judge is clearly much more young and attractive than the role requires, but he has powerful vocals and he makes up for his physical attractiveness by being personally disconcertingly overbearing in pretty much every other way. Cameron Allan's Beadle Bamford does milk the obsequiousness a little bit (and in his "Parlour Songs" he milks the miming-the-harmonium thing even more) but he has a good high tenor. Anna Rafferty is a disturbing presence as the Beggar woman, shifting between pitifulness and terrifying with ease. Jeremy Hoskins has a great italianate pomposity but should possibly have not been costumed in high-heels-and-shorts - he has fantastic legs, but fantastic legs are not what the role really cares for and they probably shoulda been in long pants for this one. Sachini Poogoda is a delightfully naive Tobias and brings a sweet presence.

Varma's set design is impressively-grand-on-a-budget, and KAtarina Tang's orchestra plays strongly throughout. Technically, this is one of the best-sounding musicals I've heard in canberra lately - there's none of the standard "mics get turned on one line into the song" moments you get all too often. Lighting is a little patchier - there's a couple of moments where scenes are left waiting for the lights to go on.

All in all this is recommended viewing for anyone who's ever despaired of seeing a "Sweeney Todd" on Canberra stages - no, it's not 100% perfect but it's pretty darn solid.

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