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Saturday, August 1, 2015

'Tommy' at the Greenwich Theatre, 31st July 2015

Saturday, August 1, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Tommy is an odd duck. Written in 1969 by Pete Townshend with the intention of expanding the scope of rock music, it's been a concept album, Ken Russell movie and stage production. Now, 46 years after its first release, it's revived on the London stage. Do the themes, aesthetics and lyrics of the late sixties resonate with contemporary audiences? Is this a mere exercise in nostalgia or does the show stand up to modern scrutiny?

Beginning in 1943 and ending in 1963, Tommy tells the story of its eponymous protagonist (Ashley Birchall). After witnessing his mother's lover shooting his father dead, he's pressured never to reveal what happened. The weight of this trauma manifests in the loss of his senses. Now blind, deaf and dumb, he's subsequently molested by his creepy Uncle Ernie (John Barr) and physically abused by his sadistic cousin Kevin (Giovanni Spano). 

He eventually finds solace in an unlikely place: pinball. Though he cannot see or hear the machine, he can sense the vibrations within, allowing him godlike control of the ball. He parlays this into fame, his opportunistic family riding the coattails of his success. Eventually he lifts his psychosomatic condition, restoring his senses. I think he then opens up a holiday camp or maybe starts a cult and becomes a rock star (the narrative gets a bit loosey-goosey in the latter half). 

In the victimised, put upon and ultimately venerated Tommy, it's easy to see an analogue of Pete Townshend himself - a comfortably numb rock star bounced around (like a pinball!) by a gang of managers, band-mates, groupies and hangers-on. Broad themes of exploitation of talent, blind worship of idols and battling against the calcified British class structure run through the material; the solution to these problems to free your mind with a combination of noodly guitar solos, high-pitched wailing and LSD. Far out, man.

Very quickly you realise that Tommy is a product of its time. The aesthetic is smartly modernist; the characters all in white, splodges of colour provided by props and costuming elements. The set follows a similar theme, concentric white equilateral triangles and white foam discs illuminated by dazzlingly bright gels. There's an air of the surreal throughout, the outlines of scenery delineated by ropes held by the cast, emotions conveyed by energetic , tightly choreographed dance sequences.

Performance-wise it's a bit of a mixed bag. Ashley Birchall's Tommy is too conventionally hunky for my taste, less ostracised weirdo made good and more temporarily embarrassed boy band member. The real highlights come in the supporting cast, namely John Barr's gross Uncle Ernie, whose blackened teeth and waggling cigar faintly echo Jimmy Savile. Best of all is Giovanni Spano's wonderfully arrogant asshole cousin Kevin. Every inch of him seeps unpleasantness, from the curl of his lips to the furrow of his brow; its one of those performances where you can guarantee he's doing something interesting whenever you look at him.

Musically it's similarly mixed. The band gives it their all, but the sound is a bit flat and the playing energetic but slightly mannered. Fortunately they're buoyed by an enjoyably varied book, from the psych-rock of Acid Queen to the plinky plonky warped music hall of Tommy's Holiday Camp. Best of all is Pinball Wizard, a fantastic song that doesn't lose its lustre even when played multiple times. There is a limit to how much dad rock I can handle in one sitting, Tommy pushes it a bit, but remains broadly musically fun.

For all that, the best thing Tommy's got going on is that it's never dull. Sure, large chunks of the narrative are unintelligible and there's a lot of interpretative dance to digest, but there's also weird doctors dressed as human televisions or a woman who appears to be the living embodiment of LSD. As the cast are toss gigantic pinballs at one other, cavort around in pink fright wigs or sing end of the pier songs about child molestation it's difficult not to be entertained - even if it's just wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

For all that fun/weird/bizarre stuff, in 2015 Tommy is ultimately a historical curiosity: a nostalgic dose of late sixties avant-garde-a-clue. But judging by the audience's rapturous response toit, this stuff is baby boomer crack. For me, it succeeded in entertaining, but frustrated in its opacity.


Tommy is at the Greenwich Theatre until 23 August. Tickets here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

'Operation Crucible' at the Finborough Theatre, 30th July 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It takes a lot to impress me. Gigantic, expensive sets? Lavish costuming? Pyrotechnics? Lots of flashing lights? Pfft, whatever, any rich old sod can chuck a bunch of money onstage. What really pushes my buttons is genuine talent: theatre that requires everyone involved to be at the absolute top of their game and permits no slackness. 

Operation Crucible is a perfect example: thrumming like the engine of a supercar and ticking with the precise rhythms of an atomic clock. Set in Sheffield around 12 December 1940, we experience the Blitz from the perspective of four steelworkers. They are Arthur (James Wallwork), Bob (Salvatore D'Aquilla), Tommy (playwright Kieran Knowles) and Phil (Paul Tino). All four are distinctive in their own right, their personalities running the gamut from brash confidence to social awkwardness. Yet it's as a unit that they shine, moving in mechanical synchronicity as they work lumps of red hot metal, completing each others sentences and winding around one another like birds in flight.

From the first minutes, their fierce civic pride shines brightly. These men have the grit of Sheffield stamped into their bones, they work the same industrial jobs as their fathers and see the fruits of their sweat in every inch of the city's architecture. During wartime their efforts are even more vital, creating the cogs of the Allied force that'll beat back the Nazi war machine.

But tonight it's the Nazi's turn to strike. As air raid sirens change from yellow (bombers spotted) to red (bombers bombing) the  men scramble to safety. They find it in a shelter at the Marples Hotel. But with a crashing boom and a blast of hot, dusty air they find themselves in total darkness. The other people in the shelter are killed as the ceiling collapses, and the four are left buried alive, awaiting rescue or death.

This is conveyed with blank concrete walls and four stools. Everything else exists in the mind of the audience and the words of Kieran Knowles. Fortunately this language is so evocative that you practically hear the hiss of the glowing metal and taste the acrid dust hanging in the air. There's a breathless, excited quality to the delivery, as if the dialogue is tumbling unedited from the character's minds.

Achieving this speed and precision looks hard. The rat-a-tat rhythm leaves no room for mistakes, the narrative thread bouncing between all four performers at tremendous speed. Merely to recite this play would be a challenge, yet these four imbue each miniature line with character development. By the end, though the men are dressed identically, speak with one voice and have similar personalities - they're all individuals.

These are four actors at the very top of their game, all equally talented and able to draw us into their world. In the buzz of their steelwork you taste the thrill of heavy industry, workers wrenching girders and plates from raw elements. In the fragments of their home lives we feel a familial love, the men simultaneously respectful sons and loving fathers. By the time they're trapped we know them so well there's an intense dread - the low lighting and growing desperation inducing a suffocating claustrophobia as their situation worsens.

Yet they persevere, drawing strength from their unity and mutual respect. We gradually understand that the men's relationship is a microcosm of British life during the Blitz, the citizenry drawing support from one another in a situation where death can arrive at any moment. 

Most strikingly of all, it gives what feels like a credible window into the past. The fingerprints of historical research are all over the dialogue, meticulous research supporting the emotional story like a scaffold. We can get a sense of what it was like to be there, to see the world through these eyes. From a contemporary perspective we also feel a sense of loss, that Thatcher's closure of Sheffield's steel industry robbed the city of identity, purpose and pride.

After premiering at this theatre in 2013, Operation Crucible has subsequently toured the nation to much acclaim, now returning to Finborough Road for a victory lap of sorts. It's well earned. Highly recommended.


Operation Crucible is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 August. Tickets here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Jekyll & Hyde' at the Platform Theatre, 29th July 2015

Thursday, July 30, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a surprisingly tricky work to adapt. The core concept of split personalities and grotesque physical transformations is malleable, but the original work comes burdened with the milquetoast protagonist Gabriel Utterson, through whose eyes we investigate what's going on with the mysterious doctor and his violent relative.

As a loose rule, productions that focus on the titular Doctor tend to work, those that focus Utterson end up suffocated by stuffy Victorian melodrama. Ominously, Chung Ying's production, directed by Jonathan Holloway, features great heaping lumps of Utterson. But there's a twist. See, Dr Jekyll is a woman and Mr Hyde is a man. 

A dollop of genderfuckery tossed into the story makes for a tantalising prospect. The conceit is that Jekyll (Olivia Winteringham) is an Eastern European genius scientist. After experiencing horrific trauma during a distant war she escapes to London, vowing that she will never experience such atrocity again. To this end she begins a series of self-administered chemical and surgical treatments designed to banish her femininity and replace it with thrusting, forthright and rapacious masculinity. Enter Mr Hyde. What follows is a warped love affair between the eccentric Jekyll and somewhat short-sighted Utterson (Michael Edwards). As the months tick by the mental and physical transformations grow ever more severe, the crazed alpha male Hyde running rampant. 

The 'mad scientist' brand of lab coat.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that this sounds pretty goddamn awesome. And it is. Sometimes. There's a lot to enjoy about Jekyll & Hyde; bizarre dialogue, bonkers physical performances, excellent costumes, a great set, striking makeup, a couple of seriously cool lighting cues and a pleasingly sincere embrace of grand guignol. 

So it's frustrating that all that is hamstrung by a dull (and pointless) framing story and achingly long set-up. Though just an hour and half long, there are some interminable sequences where top-hatted men wander about the stage doing very little of interest. You can almost feel the energy drain from the audience, the stilted dialogue and mannered performances inducing a general doziness.

Things improve at precisely the same time as Olivia Winteringham takes the stage. Her performance is worth the price of admission alone; at times a gloriously unhinged B-movie mad scientist, then a hypersexed femme fatale, then a megabarmy super manly serial killer pervert. She literally throws herself into the role, careering around the set and off the other actors like a demented pinball. 

Highlights include a deliciously kinky monologue about her fleshy flower being penetrated, writhing around in quasi-orgasmic bliss as she transforms and quasi-Victorian constrictive costume with more than a sniff of bondage to it. Best of all is the finale, in which Hyde is finally revealed as a grimy Marilyn Manson analogue who proceeds to try and fuck Utterson up the arse.

I'm fully aware that I'm selling this show pretty hard right now - what kind of bozo wouldn't want to see that stuff live? These bits are great fun, though admittedly pretty far from the sober exploration of transgenderism, wartime sexual violence and feminism in Victorian England I'd anticipated.

But be warned, sprinkled amongst some genuinely dizzy highs are some crushingly dull lows. A classic mixed bag.


Jekyll & Hyde is at the Platform Theatre until 8 August. Tickets here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

'The Policies Labour Needs to Win with Diane Abbott & Jeremy Corbyn' at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 28th July 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

There is a spectre haunting Labour. And it's got a truly magnificent beard.

I turned 18 a couple of days after the 2001 General Election. Had I been able to vote it would have been the only time I could have voted Labour without holding my nose. After the disaster of the Iraq War, the crackdown on civil liberties and the party gradually slinking towards the centre right the only reason to vote Labour became "well, at least they're not the Tories".

Now they are. In 2015 the differences between the two parties are minute; both advocate the discredited economic dogma of austerity; both treat heavy cuts to public services as a necessity; both are in thrall to the false narrative of 'strivers and scroungers' and, most disturbingly, both are eager to pile any blame on those in society least able to defend themselves. After Harriet Harman's disturbing edict that MPs to abstain on the Welfare Bill, you can't help but wonder... What's the point of the Labour Party?

That question was on the tip of everyone's tongue at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church last night. This was a joint meeting hosted by two candidates who hope to shape the future of Labour; Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn. Abbott has designs on becoming the next Mayor of London, Corbyn on being the leader of the party and next Prime Minister. Joining them were a smattering of personalities from the Labour left, Clive Webb MP, Councillor Claudia Webb, Christine Shawcroft of the Labour Party NEC, Andrew Berry from UNISON and Siddo Dwyer, Young Labour BME rep.

The atmosphere was electric. Queues snaked around the block, the hall rapidly filling to standing room only. Organisers urged the 800 strong crowd to "share like good socialists" and squeeze together to fit more in. Even after this a sizeable number were pressed against the back wall, sitting on the steps between rows - or relegated to an overspill room where the speeches were televised. The source of all this excitement? The MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has electrified this leadership contest, throwing the qualities (or lack of) his three opponents into sharp relief. Andy Burnham, previous the de facto 'left' candidate has proved to lack any political credibility whatsoever, abstaining from the Welfare Bill then criticising it. Yvette Cooper is... I don't know.. her campaign seems largely predicated on her gender rather than any discernible political stance. And then there's Liz Kendall. At least she's got principles. The problem is they're the principles of a middle-of-the-road Tory MP. Perhaps most telling is that in a poisonous sea of anti-Corbyn sentiment, none of them has managed to articulate any coherent argument either against Corbyn's politics or for their own.

In this field of non-entities, Corbyn stands out a mile. Rather than some freshly birthed, Ozwald Boateng-clad PPE mannequin, he's a backbencher of more than thirty years experience, an iron clad set of principles, a powerful sense of justice, an almost surreal humility and a truly excellent beard. I'd first met him during the election campaign at a housing hustings organised by Islington Private Tenants, and before all this leadership hoo-ha he impressed me as an intelligent, practical man who genuinely cares about his constituents. 

He would be an excellent party leader; able to counter Cameron's slick n' heartless positioning with integrity and compassion. He recognises that at the heart of Britain's problems is social inequality. As he spoke, there was palpable anger in his voice at the notion of London being filled with uninhabited luxury flats while homeless people scratch out a life in the gutter below. When he straightforwardly decries benefits systems under which people suffering from obvious disabilities are pronounced 'fit for work', driving some to suicide, he doesn't sugarcoat it. When he berates those who'd sell council houses to private landlords, renting the state's property back to the tenants whopaid for their construction, you feel a weird excited thrill. He means what he says.

All other candidates are engaged in the triangulation game - desperately trying to position their views to appeal to vacillating Tory voters. They squabble amongst each other to be 'tough on immigration' or 'willing to make the difficult cuts': their views an amorphous, shifting entity apparently dictated by the whims of the right-wing press. This inevitably leads to our homogenous politics where parties quibble over minute policy differences. Their intellectually bankrupt position can be boiled down thusly: the Tories won, maybe if Labour is Tory they will win too. 

Then there are those within the party intent on smearing Corbyn; denouncing him as unelectable and treating his supporters like infants. "Now now" they condescend, "we know you're disgusted by politicians who abandon their principles to seize power, but we're never going to seize power if you don't abandon your principles." Bollocks to that! I gritted my teeth and voted for Labour's neoliberal rubbish in 2010 and 2015, and what did that achieve? Two crushing defeats! Creeping ever more towards the right is not the answer.

Corbyn's runaway success in the polls, gathering more volunteers and donations than his campaign knows what to do with, amassing crowds of energetic supporters who cram themselves into last night's speech, prove that there's a burning need for socialism in this age of economic Darwinism, where a person's value is dictated by their bank balance.

Doomsayers predict the end of the Labour Party in the event of a Corbyn victory. Apparently the party will split, fundraising will dry up, voters will disappear into the ether and the party will become a mainstream laughing stock. But what if the other three win? Their slow transformation into a Diet Tory party squashes political debate - what's the point of democracy when the opposition party is in ideological lockstep with the government?

Last night's speeches were delivered to an intelligent, active audience hungry for political change. These have been taking place up and down the country; rooms packed full of those ecstatic that a politician with unimpeachable socialist convictions is primed for success. The idea of Burnham, Kendall or Cooper filling a hall to bursting point is laughable (I doubt they could fill a phonebox) - theirs is a cynical brand of politics that's proved to have gossamer thin credibility.

Labour shouldn't be terrified of a Corbyn victory. Rather, they should be thankful they have men and women of Corbyn's calibre in their back benches. He should win this election. He must win this election.

He will win this election.

Friday, July 24, 2015

'Festivus' at the Old Red Lion, 23rd July 2015

Friday, July 24, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A music festival is a deeply strange place. For a couple of days a community forms with collective aim of drinking themselves senseless, gobbling drugs and dancing like morons. The rules of polite society are suspended; everyone is filthy, drunk, dressed weirdly and extremely sleep-deprived. Far from home, with phone batteries failing and increasingly bruised psyches, these places are pressure kegs of heightened emotion.

This makes it all the more surprising that hardly anyone has exploited it as a dramatic setting. In terms of documentary there's Michael Wadleigh's excellent Woodstock - but after 45 years it's more historical document than a reflection of a modern festival. A much more contemporary take is 2011's You, Instead, shot at T in the Park - but unfortunately it's a crap film.  

Enter Festivus. This production ambitiously seeks to recreate the music festival vibe on stage - dishing up a tragic-comic tale of four pricks having an absolutely awful time. They are: Nathan (Sami Larabi), laddish and violent; Tom (Jamie O'Neill), smugly condescending; Laura (Sally Horwill), a ditzy emotional vacuum; and Danielle (Rosie Porter), a bit vain (but actually not so bad). As they took the stage I sensed a collective crawling of skin in the audience - these are the worst kind of festival-goers.

Arrogant and posh, they wobble about the place in an amphetamine haze chucking plastic bags full of shit into people's tents, knocking over pints and wallowing in their own hedonism. It's bad enough when these people pitch up camp near you, but to be trapped in a play with them for 90 minutes? Annoyance beckons. Then everything starts goes wrong. As the narcotics scour away their inhibitions, secrets and lies surface. Under heaping dollops of schadenfreuden, misery reigns.

The characters' transformations dramatise the idea of the festival environment revealing your 'true self'. After all, with the bondage of society temporarily loosened you can play at who you really are. For many this means dressing like a twat and falling face down into mud, but for others it's a genuinely transformative experience. At a festival you don't have to worry about how you're perceived, you can take as many illicit substances as you can handle and you're surrounded by thousands of other hedonists. After all, Glastonbury Bestival et al are distant echoes of the ur-festival experiences: Bronze Age gatherings for the Solstice, the Viking festival of Mabon or the Roman Bacchanalia. 

It's the last that's most relevant here, where half the characters are dressed in Roman Centurion armour, the other in Greek Togas. It underlines the play's point of modern festival as Bacchanalia, that ancient quasi-religious miasma of "wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals". Festivus subtly dwells on these dark Roman origins, showing us that freedom to 'do what thou wilt' can rapidly descend into blood-red nightmares.

Sally Horwill as Laura
Writing like this can only be borne of direct experience, which this script has in spades. A cool naturalism runs through almost every interaction, the best (and funniest) moments being when Tom and Laura go through the motions of an argument, the bored Tom cycling through platitudes until he hits the right combination and Laura instantly cheers up. The darker moments also impress, particularly Sam Larabi's descent into the red mist.

Then there's the well observed nuances of festival life. The difficulties in finding your friends, rummaging through a messy tent, getting used to chugging down neat vodka, people doing bumps of MDMA off their housekeys, fretting over phone batteries and the distant bassy beat of the dance tent. These moments are part of the fabric the experience, familiar to millions yet all too rarely seen on stage or screen.

Festivus does quite a bit right, making its flaws that much more disappointing. Prime among them is the lack of an ending. The narrative structure revolves around revelations - everyone betrays everyone else to one extent or another. We're primed for the fallout of all this - but never get to see it. Characters reaching the pinnacle of their dramatic arcs just disappear off stage, never to return. Perhaps there's an argument that missing important moments is appropriate to a festival, but it robs us of emotional catharsis. When the lights go up at the end there's a feeling of "oh, that's it?".

But Festivus inarguably succeeds in bottling that strange, intense festival atmosphere. There's a sense of barely-controllable chaos sweeping across the stage, heralded by rustling waves of trash and booming bass. Okay, so there's the occasional duff line, the characters sometimes tip over into the genuinely infuriating and narrative is a bit stunted, but the spirit of the piece shines through. This alone makes it worth a watch; the show a kaleidoscope of frazzled memories that neatly captures a very particular kind of contemporary experience.

Also worthy of mention is a short, experimental film shown on an Oculus Rift VR set. This complements the main production well, and works as a decent proof-of-concept for VR cinema. If you go to Festivus be sure to check it out.


Festivus is at C. Nova, Edinburgh August 5-16, 18-31. Tickets here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

'Pole' at the Etcetera Theatre, 18th July 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I've only ever been to one pole dancing club - part of a depressing stag do. The place was a grubby upstairs in Manchester's Chinatown, where damp walls and stained floors were masked by strobes and neon lights. It was awful; zombified women mechanically grinding away to an audience that looked like they'd stepped out of a Daniel Clowes illustration. The experience was about as erotic as feeding time at a hyena enclosure, confirming pretty much everything I'd suspected about these places.

Pole gets elbow deep in the what, why and how of these clubs, as well as exploring the various ways in which pole dancing is perceived. As an exercise class, pole dancing is bordering on de rigueur, a conspicuous and commercially cheeky activity for bored housewives to rekindle some lost spark of sexiness. Then there's the enthusiasm for pole as a gymnastic and dance discipline; an aesthetic appreciation of the impressive human pretzels the best performers contort themselves into. Finally, ominously, comes the salubrious strip clubs where trafficked women are ritually humiliated in front of braying men.

The three performers, Amy Bellwood, Anais Alvarado and Lyndal Marwick, adopt broadly sketched roles - each of which acts as a vehicle for the various perspectives on pole. As verbatim theatre, we should assume that the stories we hear are, in one way or another, true. This is underlined by three extremely sincere, naturalistic performances that give the show a firm emotional and intellectual core.

I know what you're thinking, right? Sure, a pole dancing show with a firm intellectual core - pull the other one. Well I'm not kidding, Pole really is firmly targeted at the head rather than the crotch. Then again I can't reasonably ignore the intense eroticism throughout. After all, these are three extremely attractive women in revealing skintight outfits pulling sexy poses. I try my best to remain objective, but a shapely butt provocatively wiggling in my general direction bypasses almost all of my critical faculties.

But Pole makes no bones about being erotic - indeed, the company has fashioned eroticism into a weapon with which to needle the audience. Though we begin with the world of fun, naughty pole dancing workouts, we gradually descend into human trafficking, eventually arriving at a hellish world of imprisoned women being gang-raped to keep them in line.

This portion of the show is bleak as hell: the details of the dancer's treatment, environments and mental health soberly laid out in evocative, precise language. These are the dark consequences of 'a bit of cheeky leching'; the endpoint of lust for women objectifying themselves. We come to see the disjunct between audience and performer, one able to enjoy a no strings attached erotic experience, the other locked into personal, financial and often literal bondage.

This is powerful stuff - so powerful that it obscures the stated message of pole dancing being a way for a woman to 'safely and joyfully express her sensuality and femininity'. By the end I couldn't help but see the pole as an enormous metallic phallus; a prison cell composed of a single iron bar. Though the poses are smoothly held with easy smiles, there's an inescapable tinge of submission to them; the dancer in thrall to a symbol of immovable masculinity.

Pole is powerful stuff, perhaps a bit too powerful. There's a thread of evangelism for pole dancing as a fun, empowering pursuit throughout most of the piece - and if you ignore the sex trafficking section this would be a fine advertisement for the art as a fun hobby. Yet dark clouds are never far offstage; a miasma of oppression, dehumanisation and objectification that engulfs the positive aspects we hear.

This theatre, fascinatingly combines social activism, gymnastics and forthright eroticism. All three performers impress, the bandages and plasters that adorn their limbs standing as testament to their skill and commitment. Pole is intelligent, ambitious and exhausting to watch - but don't go if you're after cheap titillation. You'll end up (quite rightly) feeling like shit.


Pole is at Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe from 7-31st August 2015. Tickets here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

'Lovett + Todd' at the King's Head Theatre, 16th July 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I've got to hand it to Another Soup - staging a musical of the tale of Sweeney Todd is ballsy. Though the murderous barber has been around in one form or another since the 1846 penny dreadful The String of Pearls, it's Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet that rules the roost in the public consciousness. It's arguable that a new Todd musical is equivalent to coming up with a bold new show about teenagers in a 1950s high school, tragic French revolutionaries or some kind of mysterious masked, deformed.. uh.. ballet dancer or something.

But Sondheim doesn't have a monopoly on Sweeney Todd, and though that production may be monolithic there's certainly more than one way to skin a cat. Or for that matter, a baby. You see, Lovett + Todd jettisons all notions of operatic doomed romance, substituting psychopathically sadistic pitch-black comedy. To wit, the show stakes out its territory early on with a song about killing, dismembering and cooking newborn babies.

Staged with consummate glee, the cast frolic around the stage holding realistic fake infants, smothering them and carting their bodies towards their temporary pastry graves. This many dead baby jokes this early on is quite the statement of intent, the song neatly dividing the audience. Half were wearing masks of frozen shock, the other half suppressing giggles at the audacity of it all. I'm a child of Chris Morris, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke - putting me very much in the latter camp. 

Another Soup's reimagining switches focus from barber to pie-maker, exploring how this gruesome business partnership came to be. Our dark antiheroine is Cornelia Lovett (Louise Torres-Ryan), who we first meet living outside London with her sister Amelia (Rachael Garnett). They're cheerily engaged in a plot where Amelia promises to raise the babies of the poor (for a nominal fee), but instead kills them and supplies the bodies to Cornelia, who bakes them into pies. Equally monstrous and lucrative, everything is great for a time (well, except for the babies.. and I guess the unwitting baby-eaters...).

Then calamity occurs and the sisters flee to new lives in Fleet Street. Recognising that they can't continue in this vein, they dissolve their partnership and explore new avenues of business. Mrs Lovett promptly opens a pie shop in Bell Yard, though has trouble affording the trumped up prices at Smithfields Meat Market. Where oh where can she find a steady supply of cheap meat? Enter nebbish, socially awkward barber Sweeney Todd (Daniel Collard).

Here, Todd becomes a patsy, snared in the calculating seduction of Mrs Lovett. She wraps him around her little finger, gently drawing him into her world of stoved in skulls, throat-slashing and casual cannibalism.  It's a fine twist on affairs - the question of the what the hell is going on in the head of a woman who processes corpses into meat pies is juicy dramatic territory.

Torres-Ryan excels as Lovett, taking a character with zero positive qualities and boundless cruelty and making her weirdly charismatic. Sure she's crazy, but she's also the smartest person in the room, running rings around her dullard Londoner neighbours. Underneath the sharklike smiles and maniacal stares you can practically hear the cogs of her mind ticking away, calculating the precise way in which she can maximise her profits while minimising her involvement. 

When she's not doing that, she's singing with a demented chirpiness, particularly in the centrepiece Pies, So Many Pies where she twirls around the room, cheekily pestering those in the front row of audience while extolling the virtues of her terrible wares. It's a barnstorming performance, succeeding in making the character's base amorality not a hurdle to clear but a boon.

Everyone else is somewhat dimmed in comparison, though far from bad. The supporting cast, particularly a game Andy Watkins and Sarah Shelton, approach their various roles with with lusty gumption. Collard's Todd is of slightly lesser quality, largely unable to draw out the pathos that this 'awkward loser' incarnation of Todd requires to work.

Torres-Ryan's outstanding Mrs Lovett is worth the price of admission alone; a hugely fun portrait of how much fun it can be being bad (really really really bad). That aside, there are a couple of nagging flaws; in the big ensemble pieces the lyrics become incomprehensible and the show is light on characterisation and plot (and, sadly, stage blood). But there's something authentically trashy in the show's prurient, naked obsession with grisly murder, making it feel like a contemporary take on the penny dreadful (a feel it shares with Another Soup's very enjoyable Dorian Gray).

This production shares a stage with the excellent Noonday Demons, a double bill that makes the King's Head Theatre probably the best place to be in London fringe theatre right now.


Lovett + Todd is at the King's Head Theatre until 1 August. Tickets here.

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