Sweeney Todd – The Victorian Melodrama is half comedy, half panto, and all unexpected; as the Opera della Luna uses the original stage adaption of the story (first published as a ‘penny dreadful’ series, titled, The Strings of Pearls), rather than the Sondheim musical the majority of us are familiar with.

Credit: Andy Paradise

For those of you who are not familiar with Victorian Melodrama, let me quickly introduce you to this form of theatre; back in the days when the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737 only allowed spoken word performances in patent theatres (of which there were two in London, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Covent Garden), creatives had to be extra creative. Musical items could be presented in other theatres and thus the burlettas (comic plays with musical elements) and melodramas (dramatic plays with musical elements) have been born.

If you have ever been to Wilton’s Music Hall, you will immediately understand why it is the perfect venue to resurrect this gruesome Victorian melodrama. The ambience of the theatre, with its bare bricks and rustic ceiling, perfectly frames the simplistic set design by Elroy Ashmore, when the well-costumed actors first take up their places. The story begins with a young man in disguise (Matt Kellett) who is supposed to deliver an exquisite string of pearls to a young lady. Before he sets out on his mission, he makes the unfortunate decision to get a clean haircut and a shave at the next barber shop, Sweeney Todd’s. The demon barber of Fleet Street is not mad with love and driven by revenge, he has far more simple reasons to expand his usual services, and that is greed. The first – and unfortunately only – song we hear baritone Nick Dwyer (Sweeney Todd) perform is based around wanting more, more and, MORE! While he is polishing off one victim after another, the audience is introduced to the Oakley family and their grieving daughter Johanna (the intended recipient of the pearls). From this point on, both storylines are half-heartedly intertwined with Johanna and her maid Cecily trying to uncover the whereabouts of Johanna’s one true love and Sweeney trying to cover his tracks.

Credit: Andy Paradise

When Jeff Clarke decided to go back to the show’s roots, edit the original 1847 script, and re-use the scores of composers from that period, he knew exactly what he was doing. Bringing back an almost forgotten form of theatre has quite the charm. However, the execution of this endeavour lacks precision, and this melodrama could do with some tightening. Although the 10-piece orchestra conducted by Toby Purser made fantastic use of the patchwork scores, it did not always land in harmony with the dialogue on stage. Overall vocals are strong and it is a pleasure to listen to, but surprisingly few songs are performed in total. Although each of the cast members received their moment in the spotlight, I hoped for a final musical stand-off between Dwyer and Kellett (it is not often that you are blessed with two leading baritones). Story-wise, a lot of what was happening in the 2 hours and 20 minutes of the performance did not add value to the dramatic arch and felt rather out of place. I assume those passages worked well when first printed in the ‘penny dreadful’ story, but could have been edited out of the stage adaption.

Overall, there are enjoyable comic elements which lighten the quintessentially gruesome story. Lynsey Docherty provided a stand-out performance as maid Cecily, wowing both comically and vocally with a very punctuated finale; female empowerment and all! By the second act, the audience was in full panto mood, hissing, booing, and prompting Sweeney Todd to acknowledge and react, which is all good fun. I was unsure what to expect when I sat down, but all in all, I was thoroughly entertained by Sweeney Todd – The Victorian Melodrama.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sweeney Todd – The Victorian Melodrama is on at Wilton’s Music Hall until the 29th of April, tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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