While part of the appeal of a slick, extravagant musical is the chance for sensory immersion, there's something to be said for the rawness and authenticity that can emerge from a low-budget production. Testament to this is the New Theatre's take on Stephen Sondheim's gruesome, twisted and darkly hilarious Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Under the direction of Giles Gartrell-Mills, the production is stripped back, in every sense. Plain black walls comprise the set, greyed in patches with chalky clouds and hung with dirty brown netting; the score is sparsely arranged for live trio (pianist Liam Kemp, bassist Laura MacKinnon and violinist Anastasya Lonergan). The physical and aural spaciousness allows the play's bleak tone to permeate, while avoiding overstatement.
Here's a quick plot refresher. In 1846, barber Benjamin Barker returns to London, after fifteen years spent languishing in Australia, transported for a crime he never committed, by a judge who lusted after his wife. Taking on the pseudonym Sweeney Todd, Barker embarks on a ferocious mission of revenge, not only on lawmakers, but also on humanity-at-large, finding a partner-in-crime in non-squeamish pie-maker Mrs. Lovett.
Justin Cotta attacks the lead role with authority, shifting between Sweeney's glinting-eyed, murderous malevolence and sudden storms of vulnerability and grief with a commanding balance of strength and fragility. The sassy, charismatic Lucy Miller as Mrs Lovett is an energising foil and a convincing perpetrator of cannibalism in its most absurd of forms. Aimee Timmins charms as Tobias Ragg, with her spot-on timing and knack for genuinely funny slapstick.
Jamie Leigh Johnson and Josh Anderson infuse their coupling as Sweeney's daughter, Johanna Barker, and sailor Anthony Hope with chemistry and infectious warmth. Barker's soprano is particularly impressive. Her sleazy, cruel guardian, Judge Turpin, is performed with imperiousness by Byron Watson, while Simon Ward is suitably snide as sidekick Beatle Bamford. The chorus complements solo performances with powerful, dynamic vocals and a ragged presence that captures the grim, higgledy-piggeldy backstreets of Industrial Revolution London.