Meat pie anyone? Norfolk operatic taste Sweeney Todd

Andy Gledhill as Sweeney Todd, Stephanie Moore as Mrs Lovett and Huw Jones as The Judge

Andy Gledhill as Sweeney Todd, Stephanie Moore as Mrs Lovett and Huw Jones as The Judge - Credit: Archant

With the dark story of the demon barber of Fleet Street, challenging music and lyrics,Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Sweeney Todd may well be the most ambitious show yet undertaken by the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society. JOHN BULTITUDE reports.

With its dark themes, challenging music and lyrics, and recent West End stage success, Sweeney Todd may not seem like the ideal show choice for an amateur company to take on.

But the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society are always up for a tough performing challenge and have opted to bring the story of the horrific hairdresser to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage next week.

Putting a high-quality show together from scratch for the Theatre Royal stage is quite an undertaking. For professional companies, it means months of planning and some pretty intensive rehearsals.

When the performers are amateurs, that preparation and hard work is magnified with the company, crew and producers all having other jobs to juggle alongside their performing commitments.

But there is no doubt the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society (NNOS) likes a challenge and it is setting its sights high with its 2013 production Sweeney Todd.

Taking on the lead role is Suffolk-based Andy Gledhill who decided it was worth crossing the county border from Ipswich to take on such a prestigious part. He said: 'It is one of those roles which is great to have a go at.

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'The company have been really welcoming and I am delighted to have a go at it.'

Originally from York, he has performed with societies in a number of locations as well as working with Opera North, is a member of the award-winning Suffolk Singers, and has showcased his skills on both African television and Radio 4.

But it is the lure of playing Stephen Sondheim's demon barber of Fleet Street which tempted him to join the society. He explained: 'Obviously everybody knows Sweeney Todd is this slasher who kills lots of people but you also need to remember he is very troubled. He has been very wronged as he was sent Down Under for hard labour and, after 15 years, he is back to get revenge. There is reason behind why he is so crazed and bloodthirsty.

'There is also a nice seam of humour throughout the piece. The hardest part is playing down the character as he is very troubled and brooding in the opening numbers until he gets his razor and cuts loose a bit after a while.

'I think Sondheim probably gave Mrs Lovett a lot of the humour to lighten the show or it would be too much.

'I also think it is emotionally quite draining playing the part because of what it entails.'

His co-star Stephanie Moore, plays the almost-as-evil pie shop owner Mrs Lovett and loves the opportunity to play one of the great characters from musical theatre.

'She is really what drives a lot of the plot and is quite a dark manipulative character which is great fun to play.

'She's also not what you'd call a straight villain. The judge in this is a very obvious evil character whereas Mrs Lovett generates some uneasiness. She is very funny, witty and sharp, but you don't want to like her because you know that she's evil and pushing Sweeney Todd towards some dark deeds. Sondheim wrote her beautifully as she is a very meaty character to get into, if you'll excuse the pun.'

Stephanie started performing at the age of 15 and stepped straight out of high school onto the amateur stage as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She joined the Norfolk and Norwich Amateur Operatic Society seven years ago with her first role as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar.

In common with other members of the society, she juggles her work and social commitments with the demands of a show like Sweeney Todd – and loves every minute.

'I guess not everyone wants to be a murderous pie-maker but for the next six months, that's exactly what I do, and then for the six months after that, I am hoping to be working on a production of The Sound of Music with another society.

'There's nothing not to love about musical theatre because there is that extra element to it. It is not just straight acting. You also have to bring it through in song.

'When I am 60, I will still be part of this company and still be doing shows.'

It is not just the performers on stage who give up their time.

There is also an army of backstage crew, wardrobe staff, and other volunteers who help make NNOS productions like Sweeney Todd a success.

Judi Daykin, Sweeney Todd's assistant director, said: 'It is Sondheim's musical masterpiece so it is no holds barred and some of it is very testing in terms of building the actors. The chorus aren't just chorus. They have to be characters in the street or lunatics in the asylum.

'Whatever they have been cast as, they have to be convincing. The company really work incredibly hard to get it right. It's quite difficult for amateurs when you are only rehearsing a couple of times a week because you can lose things between rehearsals.

'You can see this company take things home and work on them in their own time so you are ready to move on and polish the next bit. They are very dedicated and hardworking.'

So it looks like it is going to be a dark, suspense-filled gory start to 2013... if the Norfolk and Norwich Amateur Operatic Society have anything to do with it.

? Sweeney Todd, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 4-9, £19-£5.50, 01603 630000,