Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What a show! Audiences last week were treated to spectacular performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s not every school that could manage a production this complex, this musically and theatrically challenging, this dark…but Churchill’s students didn’t just manage it, they pulled it off in style. Sondheim’s complex score was performed note-perfectly by the pit orchestra. On stage, the singers delivered the overlapping, rapid-fire songs with such confidence and gusto that the audience were carried along with the story, the characters and the experience of grimy, backstreet Victorian London, brought to life by the wonderful sets, costumes and production design.

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But, my goodness it was dark! Sweeney Todd is exiled for a crime he didn’t commit so an evil judge could get his hands on Todd’s daughter. The judge has Todd’s daughter committed to a lunatic asylum rather than allow her to see another man. Todd, returning, sets up a barber shop with the sole intention of using it as a trap to murder his enemies. Pie-shop-owner Mrs Lovett, allowing Todd to think his wife has died, uses the bodies of Todd’s victims as the filling for her gruesome produce, selling them to enthusiastic and unsuspecting customers. It sounds horrendous, but the show trod that delicate line between horror and humour perfectly, so that the audience were entertained throughout, even as the body-count mounted.

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The performances were professional-standard, from the lead actors to each member of the chorus. The show was double-cast, meaning that each audience got to see different combinations of actors in the lead roles. When I saw it, on the Friday night, Brett Kelly was a brilliant Sweeney. On stage for almost the entire duration of the show, his performance maintained intensity and drive from the first moment to the last. He was matched by Kornelia Harasimiuk’s Mrs Lovett, whose knockabout comedy was a horrific mask for her selfish plotting. The young lovers, Johanna (Evie Tallon) and Anthony (Bobby Rawlins) were both compelling. I must make special mention of Will Truckle’s gloriously over-the-top Pirelli, whose Italian accent was trumped by his excellent Irish; and Jessica Bailey as The Beggar Woman was a compelling presence on stage, causing gasps of realisation from the audience as her true identity was revealed.

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The supporting cast were also note-perfect. The villainous Judge Turpin (Bede Burston) and his sidekick The Beadle (Charlie Tyler) were so evil, they made the audience sympathise with the murderer-and-cannibal duo of Todd and Lovett! But the image that will stay with me is that of the young Tobias, a role shared between eight young actors across the performances. In a world of twisted morality and selfishness, Tobias’s final scene was chilling indeed.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What came across to me was the tremendous team effort that goes to make a production. Sound, lighting, costume, props, stage management, choreography, musicians, staff, students, parents, families…everyone contributed to the success of the show. I know how hard everyone has worked, and the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it. Well – it was worth it. Hearty congratulations to everyone involved – it was a spectacular show.

Singin’ in the Rain – Review

At one point in Saturday’s performance of Singin’ in the Rain, the character Cosmo Brown (Cai Williams/Ricky Parsons) delivered the line: “the show must go on. Come rain, some shine, come sleet, come snow, the show must go on.”  He nearly brought the house down.

Because this was no ordinary performance. Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” had conspired together to shut down not only Churchill Academy & Sixth Form but much of the United Kingdom. Rehearsals were called off. In the midst of a Red Warning from the Met Office, Thursday evening’s performance was cancelled. Friday was also snowed off. But, with the words of Cosmo Brown ringing in their ears, the intrepid team of Mr Buckley, Mrs Lippe, Mrs Rees and Mr Stuart would not give up. The show – for one performance only – was on.

There had been no time for a technical or a dress rehearsal, and the two casts were combined and meshed together to ensure everyone got their chance on the Playhouse stage. But the cast and crew were so well-rehearsed, so professional, and so single-mindedly determined to put on a show that the audience would never have known it. Props and sets arrived on time, films flickered into life, and the rain fell from the sky right on cue. It was simply stunning.

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The actors adapted brilliantly to their shared stage time. Lucy Taylor and Molly Sprouting shone as Kathy Selden, whilst Melissa Harrold and Cara Crozier-Cole were hilariously grating as the none-too-bright megastar Lina Lamont. Jack Baker and Matt Hogg (R.F. Simpson) sparred with Ricky Parsons and Cai Williams (Cosmo Brown) with impeccable comic timing, supported by a cast as impressive in its depth and breadth as it was in the quality of its performance. But the show revolved around James Duby in the lead as silent-film-turned-musical star Don Lockwood. On stage for almost the whole show, James sang, danced and acted as though he was born to do it, holding the entire audience in the palm of his hand and bringing such energy and verve to the production that you couldn’t help but be carried along with it.

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This was a show packed with song and dance. From the chaotic comic choreography of “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the huge production number “Broadway Melody,” the dancing was exceptional. Singing was of the highest quality, whilst the pit band, conducted by Mr Spencer, would have held their own in any professional theatre. The melodramatic silent movies (and, later, the talking pictures) shot and edited by Will Maitland-Round had the audience in stitches for all the right reasons. And the unseen technical crew, running the props, costumes, set, lighting, sound and special effects for the first time ever, made the production look incredible and flow as smoothly as it could possibly have done.

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You might have expected the show to be tinged with disappointment, as it hadn’t turned out the way that everyone would have wanted it to. But actually, inside the theatre, the cast, crew and audience were united in a joyous celebration, as if the show had got onto the stage through the force of sheer willpower alone. We went home through the melting snow, singing the songs, and privileged to have been part of such a special, memorable performance.

Thank you to everyone involved – students, staff, and families – for making Singin’ in the Rain not only possible, but wonderful.

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Read this review on the Academy website here.

All photography by Neil Phillips – visit his website here.

In Production

 

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The cast of West Side Story 2016

This week Churchill has been buzzing with the excitement of West Side Story being performed at The Playhouse in Weston-Super-Mare. Well over a hundred students and staff are involved in this enormous production, which has been over a year in the making and is the culmination of countless hours of hard work, dedication and effort. Is it worth it? You bet!

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Programmes from some of the shows I’ve done…I got some of them signed in case the cast went on to be famous!

I know first hand what it means to be involved in a school production. My history with them goes right back to being second innkeeper in my primary nativity! However, it wasn’t until secondary school that I got fully involved with drama, working behind the scenes on lighting for many of our plays including Guys and Dolls, Our Country’s Good, Cider with Rosie, Animal Farm and Evacuees. The highlight for me was definitely the production of Twelfth Night we put on when I was in Year 13. It was a beautiful production and it felt like an incredible team effort!

I carried on my drama work throughout university and into my career as a teacher. I was in the band for Bugsy Malone and (my favourite show!) Return to the Forbidden Planet at my first school, and even made an appearance as Johnny Casino in our production of Grease! I ended up directing or co-directing productions later on in my career, including a heady spell of co-writing plays for our school to put on with the Head of Drama. We adapted the story of Faust in a production called “Tina”, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream became Fairylandatopia, before I returned to the Forbidden Planet for my final stint as director (in a production starring the now famous Jack Howard as Captain Tempest…but I didn’t get him to sign a programme!)

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The programme for West Side Story

Why do we do it? Let me count the ways! Clearly there’s the opportunity to learn such a range of skills in the performing and expressive arts area – performance is the ultimate aim. Acting, playing, singing, dancing, choreographing, directing and conducting all go into the show, alongside lighting, sound, costume, make up, set and production design and construction, stage management, marketing…the list is endless. The chance for young people to learn and practise these skills in a “live” context is invaluable.

Above all, though, it’s the connections that the production makes which mean it’s integral to the school’s calendar. The fact that so many staff and students need to work together as a single team towards a single goal galvanises the whole community, and shows that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts.

I know what it takes to put a production – the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, that bad rehearsal where everything goes wrong and you wonder if it’s ever going to work…but it always does. And when the audience is laughing or gasping or gripped in collective silence by the action on the stage, when they applaud and you just can’t stop smiling with pride – that’s when it’s worth it.

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Well done to everybody involved in West Side Story – I can’t wait for the next one!