Theatre Editor CAITLIN DOHERTY gets blinded by the pies into enjoying something she definitely shouldn't.
Fitzpatrick Hall, 1st – 5th November, 7.45pm, £5-6
Dir. Anthony Woodman
Musical Dir. Jeremy Cole
BATS’ production of Sweeney Todd was – by a long way – the worst piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Ever. And, precisely because of this, it was completely fucking brilliant.
Musicals staged by college drama societies have a hard time of it. There’s not much money for the ol’ razzle dazzle and the best singers and dancers of the student body have usually been tempted off into mainshows equipped with the moneys for bigger publicity drives by the time that casting even begins. Such seemed the case with this production, whose performers demonstrated varying levels of competence, but no brilliance, at least not in the usual musical way.
The decision to costume the chorus in (presumably their own) smart grey tops and black trousers, when coupled with three of the male leads’ terrible fitting suits and ‘zany’ purple ties, gave the whole thing the feel of one of those disgusting Halifax adverts, but without Howard’s ‘redeeming’ charisma.
The Beadle’s (played by Hiroshi Amako) stance was perpetually that of a man trying to sell you an unwanted hands-free set in Carphone Warehouse: awkward smile, hands clasped over the crotch in a paralipsis of desexualized commercial exchange, arched forwards in very squeaky, very shiny shoes.
Sweeney Todd (Mike Craddock) himself made me think of how my A-Level chemistry teacher might have looked if he’d gone to a fancy dress party as a paler version of Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs. Barbers are, evidently, renowned for their fidelity to the skinny black tie. I think Judge Turpin (Laurence Williams) was actually wearing a zoot suit.
There was no chemistry between any of the performers. The blocking lurched consistently between ridiculously uncomfortable cross-stage angles or entirely static delivery. I’m aware that it’s not a useful criticism to describe lighting as ‘just wrong’ but this production leaves me with no other option: the stage was either plunged into darkness during speech or the wrong people were lit up in the kind of neon-orange glow that’s usually accompanied by Bruce Willis screaming that there’s only x number of seconds left until the place blows.
So what redeems this production to the level of awarding it five whole stars? Pretty simply, its unapologetically amateur approach. Not a single one of the main performers (with the exception, perhaps of Lorna Reader as Mrs Lovett who under a better director could have been a West End style matron figure) could act, but by God they were trying.
I’ve seen plays in Cambridge that were so bad they were offensive; not because of the cast’s inability, but rather the pretensions of professionalism on behalf of the production and the failure to understand that if you want your drama to be taken seriously then you have to give some thought to the political message it bears. Sweeney Todd has none of this attitude. It’s like watching a school play – it endears itself to you by virtue of the cast’s unceasing endeavor. It’s also unintentionally hilarious.
The set is so badly designed that when Sweeney finally starts killing his customers in his special barber’s chair, he actually has to lift their ‘limp’ bodies out of the seat, push them to the back of the platform and then give them a kick to get them offstage. The fight scenes are like watching people who’ve never used their arms before try to give each other hugs. Judge Turpin’s performance seems modeled purely on the infantilized murderer from Psychoville. The chorus come onstage in the Bedlam scene dressed as zombies. ZOMBIES, for God’s sake – in this production, the mentally ill are presented as extras from a George A Romero film. Which, for me, is miles less offensive than asking untrained performers, without the time to properly research the medical and historical background of Bedlam, to try and act like someone sent crazy by the incessant spinning of cotton looms.
Sometimes, Cambridge drama can be guilty of taking itself just a bit too seriously. In the rush to impersonate commercial theatre, it’s important that there’s room for silly rubbish too, and Sweeney Todd is just that. Have a drink, go with friends and support some college drama. On top of everything else, the musicians are obviously very talented people who deserve a good audience.
All that there now remains for me to exclaim, eyes glistening and surrounded by a chorus of twenty year olds dressed as mortgage advisers while I forcefully brandish a cut throat razor, is that this review, like Sweeney Todd’s right arm, “is COMPLEEEEETE!”