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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 14th August 2004

Sweeney Todd / The Night Season

The Spectator - 14th August 2004

The taste of the public and the critics rarely coincides, particularly when it comes to musical theatre. The loathed and detested Andrew Lloyd Webber has accumulated a fortune of £400 million thanks to the unlettered masses, while Stephen Sondheim hasn't had a Broadway hit since Into The Woods in 1987. This may have something to do with the boy genius's choice of subject-matter. In the showbiz satire Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini summed up the composer's work to the tune of Comedy Tonight:

Something elitist

Something defeatist

Nothing you'd want to underwrite...

John Doyle, one of Britain's leading practitioners of actor/musician theatre, has come up with a nifty solution to the underwriting problem: he's masterminded a production of Sweeney Todd that only requires a cast of ten--and they double up as the orchestra. The idea of a musical about Britain's most notorious mass murderer may not appeal to everyone, but watching these ten actor/musicians multi-task their way through a five-star Broadway spectacular is a sight to behold. The mere fact that they pull it off, bracketing the question of whether the play's any good or not, is almost reason enough to see it.

There are other reasons, too. This production originated at the Watermill Theatre and John Doyle is as gifted at utilizing a small space as he is a limited budget. The action unfolds on one set that, with the smallest of alterations, can switch from a pie shop to a courtroom to a lady's bedchamber. Needless to say, the poor grunts shifting the scenery are the same overworked wretches who play all the instruments and all the parts. The incredible thing is that they manage to morph in and out of their different roles, discarding a flute there, picking up a coffin here, with an almost preternatural grace. You'd expect this production to be nervy and frenetic, given the multiple demands being made on the performers. But it's extremely fluid.

Is the play itself any good? That depends on your opinion of Stephen Sondheim. Unlike more traditional forms of musical theatre, there's no collaboration between composer and book writer here. It's just one song after another. The standard criticism of Sondheim is that he's all head and no heart and that seems particularly true of a tongue-in-cheek gore fest like Sweeney Todd. It's brimming with ingenious rhymes and shifting time signatures, but there's very little for the audience to connect with. There are no take-home tunes, just a series of billboards advertising the composer's musical genius. "Anyone can write clever," said Jule Styne, who collaborated with Sondheim on Gypsy. "The really clever thing is to write simple."

I have mixed feelings about Nicholas Hytner's reign as the artistic director of the National. I was virtually the only dissenting voice during his first year, having disliked Jerry Springer -- The Opera, Henry V, Elmina's Kitchen and, in particular, His Girl Friday, all of which were hailed as unqualified triumphs by my colleagues. However, since then I've revised my opinion, having liked His Dark Materials, Jumpers, Democracy, History Boys and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The Night Season, a new play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, belongs on the debit side of the ledger. The play, which is set in rural Ireland, concerns the plight of three sisters and some critics have taken Lenkiewicz to task for being too obviously indebted to Chekhov. There are other influences as well, most obviously Marie Jones and Martin McDonagh, but I didn't mind the fact that she's lifted so much of her material from other playwrights. As Picasso said--or was it Stravinsky?--"Good artists borrow; great artists steal."

There's nothing wrong with the performances, either. I'm not a fan of Annette Crosbie's as a rule, but she does a superb job of playing a dotty grandmother pining for one last fling, and David Bradley is outstanding as a bitter old drunk who's fond of quoting King Lear. There's good work, too, from Justine Mitchell as the best-looking of the three siblings and Lloyd Hutchinson as a local lad who's still holding a torch for one of the sisters even though she broke up with him years ago.

The problem with The Night Season is that not enough happens to justify its two-and-a-half-hour running time. There's no plot to speak of, just a series of well-crafted scenes. The only device Lenkiewicz introduces to keep you in your seat is a romantic subplot concerning the future of the two ex-lovers. Will the repressed older sister loosen up enough to reciprocate the feelings of her former boyfriend? The truth is, we don't care nearly as much as we do about the fate of the middle sister and a visiting movie star whom she enjoys a one-night stand with. Alas, their story is never resolved.

Lenkiewicz definitely has talent, but like so many of the other new playwrights who've been showcased by Hytner she hasn't mastered the art of crafting a powerful, dramatic story. Isn't there room in the National's budget for a really good dramaturge? He or she could make the world of difference.

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