Friday, July 17, 2015

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

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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