views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Lovett + Todd
The King's Head Theatre
23rd July 2015


Publicity image for Lovett + Todd

Photography provided by The King's Head Theatre

Nellie Lovett (Louise Torres-Ryan) and her sister Amelia Dyer (Rachael Garnett) are struggling their way through life, when their mother (Sarah Shelton) dies, leaving them bitter orphans with nothing but each other and an overwhelming sense that the world should pay for their suffering. The grief drives them mad - to the point where fosterer Amelia starts giving her unfortunate charges to Nellie use as pie meat. Well, of course. As the narrator (Eddie Mann) explains, things go a little bit wrong and Nellie soon opts for a change of scenery, moving her macabre trade to Fleet Street. She searches for another business partner - ideally someone who's better at killing. Useless sister of hers, not quite up to the job. Enter Sweeney Todd (Daniel Collard), a skilled barber who's a bit of a loner and ripe for Nellie to seduce and manipulate into doing her bidding.

Sweeney Todd doesn't really belong to anyone, but if you were to name a definitive version, it would undoubtedly belong to Sondheim. Dave Spencer and Idgie Beau's book is considerably simpler, cutting out lots of subplots and complicated back stories. It shifts the focus from Sweeney as the big bad, to a reluctant murderer who would do anything for love, and would probably even do that thing Meatloaf refused to do. It's a fresh take on a well-known tale, and it's a fun one to watch and even be a part of, with the cast drawing the audience into the action, with plenty of dancing and feasting. (If you want to try one of Mrs Lovett's famous meat pies, you're a braver person than I am.)

Composer Jo Turner's music is fine, if not particularly catchy, but the rhyming schemes are clunky and artificial ("those babes we efficiently abort", "this you can have if my pies you eat"), and although attacked with gusto by the entire ensemble, you can see a natural divide between the more experienced musicians acting, and the pure actors. Louise Torres-Ryan is a wonderful Nellie Lovett, bringing comedy and devilishness to the role, but is one of the weaker singers. Given her character's humble London roots, she just about gets away with the lack of finesse, but she's far more suited to straight theatre than musical theatre.

Daniel Collard puts in one of his best performances to date, initially a little hammy, but this touch of the theatrics settling down quickly. Sweeney's devotion and lust for Nellie comes across strongly, and following her ultimate betrayal of him, he breaks down convincingly. His vocal ability smooths over some of the issues with his co-lead. At times, he sings below his natural range, but copes admirably. Orchestrator Isaac Lusher perhaps should have adapted some of the songs to better suit Collard's voice, as here the fault lies with the music rather than the singer.

It's the men who help salvage the vocals. Assisting Collard is Andy Watkins, who although playing various minor parts, can always be heard in the larger ensemble numbers. His confident baritone is a real boon to the production. A piece of barbershop is a particular highlight, but generally, it is these songs where the men get to lead which sound more polished. The King's Head is intimate enough that no one should ever need a microphone, but Shelton struggles to project.

There are some delicious throwaway lines such as Sweeney remarking he doesn't know how Nellie's convinced him to murder his customers, with the co-writers sharing a joke with the audience. When it comes to penning the book for a good musical, you can almost get away with murder, but it's a nice bit of awareness, which lands well. Collard and Torres-Ryan make for a credible comedy couple, with one of the funniest moments the juxtaposition of protective and lovestuck Sweeney singing "I'll throw him in the Thames" against Nellie enthusiastically declaring "I'll put him in a pie". As Collard's character finally understands what his sweetheart is saying, his expression is priceless.

Admittedly, the King's Head does normally serve up operas and musicals of a far higher standard than this. Lovett + Todd is more rustic pub grub than deconstructed Michelin dining, and staging this show in the same venue in which Opera Up Close have performed countless times is just asking for an awkward comparison. Still, Lovett + Todd may look a little rough the edges, but the flavours are all there, and sometimes, that's all you want in a snack.

Lovett + Todd opened on 14th July and runs until 1st August 2015 at the King's Head Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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