The closest shave you will ever have!

Posted: April 19, 2010 in Random Ramblings

I recently had the opportunity to see a version of “Sweeney Todd” by the Ashton School Players. I have made a habit of seeing my school’s annual musical each year since the tradition was revived by the school’s current “director”. Starting three years ago, there was the boyfriend, a not so well-known musical by today’s standards, but my parents assure me it was one of the most entertaining film adaptations of its time. Following this there was Guys n’ Dolls, a more well-known show in the theatre world, the film version having featured such legends as The Godfather’s Marlon Brando and the infamous Frank Sinatra. While the score includes such timeless songs as Luck be a Lady and the main tune Guys n’ Dolls. Actors who have played in the stage version in the west end include Hollywood star Ewan McGregor. Last year we had the pleasure of seeing another less known production, however The Music Man was highly entertaining with a talented cast and once again, first class directing, musical direction, choreography and all the other specialties that are vital for a stage production. Bringing these together, The Music Man was yet another Rodgers and Hammersteinesque re-enactment.

This year however, the Ashton School Players veered off the beaten track of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber and delved into the rather more twisted and sinister world of Steven Sondheim, in their production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Not to ruin the story, but Sweeney Todd follows the (somewhat true) story of Benjamin Barker, a man exiled to Australia by the corrupted Judge Turpin, only later to return to London to exact bloody revenge, with the help of Mrs. Lovett, a deranged pie baker who works from a shop beneath “Sweeney’s” barber shop.

I had, when visiting London, the opportunity to go on a bus tour which took us through Fleet Street. “and if you look down that small dark alley” came the ominous voice of the tour guide over the bus tannoy, “you might be able to see what is left of Benjamin Barker’s Shop where so many men received ‘the closest shave they ever had!’ That, however is where Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop was, where she served up her pies of human flesh, made from the bodies of Sweeney Todd’s victims. You’ll find now that it’s been turned into a subway.”

Sondheim’s is an eerie take on the story of two psychopaths, although it must be said, the real Demon Barber of Fleet Street did not, I think, sing and dance quite as much as Sondheim’s character.

It must be said that this year’s production has been, at least in my opinion, the most compelling yet. It would be difficult to live up to the standard of Tim Burton’s high-budget film adaptation of the stage classic. This particular version featured the brilliantly talented Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. However our school’s no-budget version surpassed any expectations that I ever had!

The show was staged in a small theatre as always, with room for about a hundred in the audience. It goes without saying that the stage itself requires a certain economy and innovation in any props and sets used, being less than twenty feet across. The hardworking stage-crew and set-designers had their work cut out for them, but they certainly succeeded in bringing the show to life on a small stage. Our school’s woodwork, metalwork and art departments were employed to construct an ‘economic’ set. In the end, a fully transportable set, which at a turn could be transformed into “Pirelli’s Magical Elixir Stall” to “Sweeney Todd’s Barber shop” to “Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop” to the dreaded “Bakehouse”.

As for the prospective thespians themselves, our school’s young actors performance could have put Johnny Depp himself to shame. The efforts of the lead characters especially was very impressive, but what is any leading lady or man without an able support cast. This year’s group made a valiant effort in bringing the story of Sweeney Todd from life to death and I wait with impatience for next year’s show!

I will however maintain that our year’s show, Guys n’ Dolls was even better.

That’s right, I myself have had my spot in the limelight! It is in transition year that we get the chance to perform in the school show. For anyone who is not Irish, Transition Year, is something that will be completely alien. The best way to describe it is the following:

In the 1980’s Ireland was poor. We hadn’t quite gone back to potato farming and living in workhouses. But things were bad. To combat the rise in unemployment the government established a new programme in schools. “Transition Year” was a year for “self-development” in between the two state exams we have to do as part of the Irish Education System. This is a rather more grand description of what the year really is. It was a quick solution for stemming the tide of graduates from secondary school who were leaving education and looking for work that wasn’t there, furthermore, it was a year for doing “ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!” For many, transition year is mostly spent in computer labs on the internet, when not doing work experience or projects, for us, it was something totally different. I myself was both part of the cast as Benny Southstreet (think 1930’s goon with a new york accent!) and part of the theatre studies group where my personal job was to help design our own set.

We even did auditions. I have to say that yes I certainly was a stranger to the whole world of acting, although yes I had been in two small productions (ten minutes long each) in my first school. We did one original play and a scene from the wizard of oz… where I played the mayor of the munchkin city. (No shorty jokes please.)

Therefore, quite raw as an actor (and being in a wheelchair truly made me question my part in a rather more serious production like Guys n’ dolls) I was slightly nervous about the show. However, much to my surprise, I was given a rather big part. (Look, my character had a NAME so it was a big part… ok?) I was so happy to be a part of it at all, to get such a part was just fantastic.

The acting, was not the hard part. I have always been able to put on funny voices so the accent wasn’t too hard. The greatest compliment I received was when a young child asked me why my character was supposed to be in a wheelchair! The one main concern I had was the dancing. I mean at the best of times I have two left wheels…

But somehow I managed it, we worked the choreography around the wheels and it just worked. For anyone who had to dance close to me however on our five night run of Guys n’ Dolls, I do apologise for rolling over your toes… several times.

I think the whole cast looks back on that five night run in the spotlight with some fondness. The cast and crew became such good friends that year through the show, it was such a pleasure to go to rehearsal nearly every day for nine months. The photo that was taken on the opening night of most of the cast doing a jazz hands pose is now one of my favourite ever.

*I haven’t used names of any actors or crew members of any show in this article so as not to mention anyone who would prefer not to be.*

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