THEATRE REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Act II Theatre Company, South Holland Centre, Spalding
"There's a hole in the world, like a great black pit".
The inner torment of barbaric barber Sweeney Todd, as described above, could well be the fate that awaits South Holland should it ever lose Act II Theatre Company.
Its latest production, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, should have proved one ambitious step too far for the danger-seeking young people's stage group.
Director Charlotte Gernert readily admitted it in her programme notes where she said: "The music is complex, to put it mildly, the themes are dark, the characters are sophisticated and, of course, the blood.
"Quite a lot to cope with really as a young performer, especially when you have school to contend with too."
As the show began its gruesome and tortuous journey through the legend of Victorian serial killer Benjamin Barker (Ashleigh Mills), a murderous barber based in London's Fleet Street who cut the throats of unsuspecting customers before turning over their bodies to his willing accomplice, Mrs Lovett (Beth Ward), to serve up as pie fillings, the number one question was this - has Act II gone too gothic for its own good?
But then came the scene when Senor Adolfo Pirelli (Kate Cole) came on stage, promoting his "Miracle Elixir" to rich and poor alike.
It was then that the whole show changed into the blackest of black humour that signalled a handover of the Advanced Skills' mantle from one generation to another.
In recent years, Spalding audiences have been impressed by the likes of Morgan Agate, Seren Cave, Charlotte Charleston-Stokes, Sophie Gale, Rebe Hawes, James Girard, Jack Harrison and Dominique Spinks carrying the responsibility of turning youth theatre into an artform.
But in the process of handling songs, such as The Worst Pies in London, God, That's Good, By The Sea and Not While I'm Around, this particular cast of Act II thespians came into their own.
Ashleigh Mills delivered the lead role with all the promise she showed in previous shows, including Carrie: The Musical, Bonnie and Clyde and, less than two months earlier, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
There were other revelatory performances too, Beth Ward (Mrs Lovett), Lily Bergin (Johanna), Louise Underwood (Judge Turpin), Macie Harman (Beggar Woman) and Kate Cole (Pirelli) all revelled and relished in acting as perpetrators, co-conspirators and victims of the gorish, gut-wrenching and grisly crimes of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett.
But the two stars to shine brightest of all in a spectacular galaxy of youth theatre at its most exciting were Libbi Wooding (Beadle Bamford) and the outstanding Liam Exton (Tobias).
Libbi, both with her superb vocals and ability to completely inhabit a character, put herself forward as the natural successor (if not undeniable double act to be) to Dominique.
But anyone who saw Libbi's show-stealing turn as Inspector Javert in University Academy Holbeach's Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award-quality production of Les Miserables in November 2018 would have seen stage stardom coming her way already.
All that remains for this reviewer to do is to mention the show-stealing, star-making, standing ovation-worth display by Liam Exton, quite simply the most outstanding individual performance this reviewer has ever seen in nearly seven years of watching theatre in South Holland.
Liam was electric, energetic, eccentric, ecstatic, exotic, explicit, terrific.
Who better to sum up the sheer magic of Act II Theatre Company's version of Sweeney Todd than the Demon Barber of Fleet Street himself.
"I can guarantee the closest shave you'll ever know."
Review by Winston Brown