March’s most exceptional shows: Sweeney Todd, The Royale, and A Breakfast Of Eels

The standard of new releases has been impressive this month, with each of our three picks pushing the boundaries of the theatrical experience in its own way.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – “Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop” (Shaftesbury Ave popup), 4.5-star average

The unusual transfer of what Sarah Hemming (FT) called a “hair-raising chamber version of Sondheim’s gory musical chiller” to a purpose-built replica venue received four- and five-star reviews. Dominic Maxwell (Times) declared “You’ve never seen his Sweeney Todd served up quite like this”.

Mark Shenton (The Stage), who saw the original in a real Tooting pie-and-mash shop, was “gobsmacked” by “a museum-worthy recreation” adding “there’s nothing fake at all about its astonishing power to insinuate and implicate its audience in the mass-murder”. Paul Taylor (Independent) agreed: “claustrophobic proximity heightens both the black farce and the tragic horror.” Hemming explained: “you don’t just watch as Sweeney lathers up his victims, you feel the flecks of shaving foam land on your own cheeks”. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) found its joys “cheeky and up close”, saying “little touches that would fall flat in a bigger space sparkle”.

Fiona Mountford (ES) delighted in “the thought and confidence with which the actors possess every inch of the space,” said Siobhan McCarthy “shines”, and found Jeremy Secomb “magnificently brooding”. Hemming enjoyed a the contrast between a “haunted” Sweeney and a “chirpy, but increasingly desperate” Mrs Lovett.

Most agreed with Shenton’s praise for “full-blooded performances” from the six supporting actors, and director Bill Buckhurst’s “amazing feat of never making it feel (still less sound) threadbare.” Music comes courtesy of “a superb trio… with rumbling piano [and] gnawing strings.” Hemming enjoyed experiencing Sondheim’s “razor-sharp lyrics and intricate score” up close and Taylor found it “sung with terrific commitment”.

Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) summed up a “fleet-footed, stylishly lit affair” which “delivers the essentials: finely sung, suitably eerie ensemble story-telling with two hair-raising turns at its centre”. Maxwell judged the whole “grimly funny, gripping, unnerving”, Shenton found it “shattering, unmissable” and Taylor described “A close shave of alarming distinction”.

Run extended to 30 May

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The Royale – Bush Theatre, 4.1-star average

Glowing reviews also greeted Marco Ramirez’s new play which, explained Michael Billington (Guardian), “uses the outline of [Jack] Johnson’s story to explore both the fighter’s pride and the ferocious prejudice he provoked”.

Patrick Marmion (Mail) praised “a lean, mean script that bobs and weaves beautifully”, and others described “taut”, “gripping” and “startling” writing. Jane Martin (What’s On Stage) observed “a healthy portion of the scathing wit and featherlight dance moves made famous by Muhammad Ali”.

Billington described a “stirringly expressionist vision” of “the dilemma faced by a mythic black American hero”, while Marmion found it “intriguingly dreamlike”. Only Fiona Mountford (ES) thought the piece “too slight to support such a hefty topic”. Andrzej Lukowski declared the story “complex and bittersweet enough to avoid Rocky levels of sentiment”.

Mountford joined the praise of Madani Younis’s “constantly stylish production”. Lukowski saw Younis “really flex his directorial muscles” and highlighted the show’s “physicality”. Ben Lawrence (Telegraph) found “The taut discipline of jabs, hooks and rabbit punches… simultaneously hypnotic and nerve-jangling”.

Lukowski called Nicholas Pinnock’s Jay “excellent – funny, moody, menacing”, Mountford found him “brooding and kinetic”, and Martin “extraordinary and intensely committed”. Lawrence observed “balletic grace and physical confidence”, declaring that Pinnock “spits Ramirez’s short, sharp dialogue with a curtness that is emotionally piercing.”

Billington praised “fine support” and Marmion enjoyed “the ensemble of five delivering lines in jabs, flurries and hooks as they jig, swerve and ghost about the ring”. Lawrence highlighted Frances Ashman’s portrayal of Jay’s sister, and Martin observed her “cool conviction” and “simmering menace”.

Martin felt the whole “pulses with emotion” and detected “a lasting, chilling resonance”. Lukowski found it “as heart-in-mouth thrilling as anything you’ll see in London at the moment, stage or ring”.

Runs to 18 April

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A Breakfast of Eels – The Print Room, 3.9-star average

Predominantly four-star reviews greeted Robert Holman’s latest, the story of two orphaned brothers, which Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage) thought “right up there with [Holman’s] best”.

Henry Hitchings (ES) explained: Holman’s script “portrays the slippery bond between two men and offers tender musings about inheritance and codependency, inequality and influence”. Michael Billington admired the “great finesse” with which he “unravels” their “complex interdependence”. Natasha Tripney (The Stage) enjoyed writing that was “full of ache and beauty” and Stewart Pringle (Time Out) found Holman “literate without being laboured” using “music and song with the same sure and deft touch he uses to swat away melodrama”.

Billington praised “first rate” performances which Hitchings thought “perfectly aligned”. Trueman explained: “Both parts were written, tailor-made, for their actors and it totally shows”, observing “uncanny similarity” and a “gorgeous, easy chemistry.” Pringle found both actors “immensely talented” adding that “their empathy with the writing creates moments of unforgettable power”.

Tripney found Andrew Sheridan “brilliantly contained” and Billington thought he “exactly catches Francis’s guarded watchfulness and… depression.” He enjoyed Matthew Tennyson’s “pitch-perfect” portrayal of “arrested emotional development” while Tripney reported a “clear, bright singing voice” and “a gentle, childlike nature” that “grows in resilience”.

All appreciated what Pringle judged “great work” from director Robert Hastie. Trueman described an “exquisite production – unhurried and precise, credible and poetic” and Hitchings praised “admirable lack of hurry, allowing Holman’s dreamlike writing to breathe”.

Billington, who gave it three stars, concluded “Holman is very good at exploring the waywardness of passion” but admitted he “sometimes wished his characters would come clean”.

But Pringle, who said it “swells, pregnant with meaning and guarded, overcast silences, before breaking into beautiful, painful torrents” found it “immensely satisfying”. Trueman praised “a study of brotherhood – as profound as I’ve encountered” and Hitchings detected “a beautifully fragile lyricism” which Tripney found “incredibly moving”.

Runs to 11 April

Remember to check our front page’s Top Ten for the many more theatrical treats currently on offer.

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