One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.
However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!
That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.
The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.
Perhaps this is why that many modern examples take place in genre fiction where pastiche is acceptable and comparability to the original is not the purpose of the exercise. Another Soup has set themselves the brave (or possibly foolish) task of working in the style of the original. Whilst Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is not technically the source material – the original story goes all the way back to the time of the penny dreadful – it would be quarrelsome to suggest that Sondheim’s musical has not become synonymous with the story.
His 1979 musical carried off the Tony and the Olivier for Best New Musical. It was turned into a film in 2007, 2012 saw it in the West End with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton (winning 3 more Olivier Awards in the process), 2015 had a semi-staged version with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfal whilst Cameron McIntosh transferred another from a Tooting Pie & Mash Shop into Shaftesbury Avenue. The pedigree of the musical is such that, while recasting the tale through the eyes of Mrs Lovett is not in itself problematic, doing so in the form of the musical requires an impressive chutzpah.
Another Soup work incredibly hard to make the evening enjoyable. There is a conspiratorial ‘we’re all in this together’ tone throughout. The cast regularly break the fourth wall and introduce the audience into the action. Taking the spirit of the evening into account, it feels that the show is played as pastiche, and so one accepts that the narrator’s garrulous manner is not due to overwriting but is a conscious choice.
There are some inspired moments. The idea of a barbershop quartet may have been too frivolous for the dark-heart of Mr Sondheim but it is a highlight here. It is very difficult to make this form of a capella singing appear natural, and to do so whilst creating some fluid stage action was impressive. This song cropped up in the middle of show, and it was here the production really held its own. Alongside it was a toe-tapping number that was seemingly influenced by ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins, before breaking into a ‘Cor-Blimey’ chorus that wouldn’t have shamed Nancy in Oliver Twist.
There was a fine solo from Daniel Collard (Todd) that allowed him opportunity to flex his vocal muscles and was able to demonstrate a level of control that set him apart from the rest of the cast. Of all the performers he was the only one who seemed entirely comfortable with the singing duties. His Todd was also allowed a decent side-line in sardonic one-liners that he delivered with a dryness that occasionally defeated other cast members, who seemed to be searching for the laughter than having faith that the laughs would come to them if they let it happen naturally.
It is an enjoyable production – and that is thanks to the hardworking cast – but there are problems that cannot be overlooked. It does test the audience with an opening that works too hard to create an impression. The narrator’s opening song delivers rhymes that only serve to remind you that we are not watching Sondheim’s original, whilst the introduction of Lovett and her family is delivered through a song that doesn’t serve the natural range of the actors particularly well.
I have no doubt that presented on the Edinburgh Fringe this would find an audience to be entertained by it, and amongst similar productions it may well standout. However in the harsher spotlight of a run at the Kings Head it becomes clear that for it to go further there needs to be an honest appraisal of script and score to cleave away what works from what doesn’t.
Lovett + Todd Teaser Trailer