From a shave to the grave

Martin Peacock
Martin Peacock
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A saver of lives is busy taking them

BY day Martin Peacock is in the business of saving lives – but next week he’ll be taking them nightly as the star of the latest Croft House Theatre Company blockbuster.

The Sheffield group occupies the Lyceum with its production of Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. And Martin is the man wielding the blade.

“I help put people back together, not take them apart,” he says of his day job. “I’m a radiographer and now manage radiography and medical physics for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals.”

From Tuesday until Saturday he’ll be Todd, exacting revenge for false imprisonment in 19th century London while victims of his barbers’ chair are turned into pies by Mrs Lovett.

“We chose it following the success of the Tim Burton film. If ever we could tackle it now was a good time, while people still remember that.

“The film was a very different presentation – very few people actually sing. For my mind there was a lot of stuff missed out which is far better in the stage show.

“Our director has gone back to basics with it, directing with the three styles with which it was intended to be performed. He’s used a lot of melodrama style in the piece.”

Certainly it’s a stark contrast to the celebrated amateur company’s previous successful production, The Full Monty at Sheffield City Hall, and Fiddler On The Roof before that.

“It stretches us and gives the audience some variety, and membership changed because of the nature of the production,” he says of Monty.

“Some regular playing members chose not to be in it and it attracted some new members. I don’t think it did any harm, it did some good.

“And doing Sondheim is always brave in the provinces. He’s my hero but he’s not everyone’s hero. It’s thinking man’s theatre but really Sweeney Todd is probably the most accessible of Sondheim’s work. It’s very easy to watch and easy on the ear.”

With 17 chorus members and a 10-strong ensemble, there will be around 35 on stage for a production ambitious on several levels.

And as one of Sheffield’s best amateur groups, one of just two that use the Lyceum, there’s pressure.

“They expect a very high standard for amateurs and I like to think that’s what they get. We’re working in a professional venue. We recognise we’re amateurs but we’re conscious before and after us in that theatre are professionals earning their money for what we do for a hobby.

“Being in this fabulous theatre we have to do things the proper way. We’re very conscious of where we’re putting the show on. It’s an honour to perform in the most beautiful theatre I’ve ever been in.”

Unlike professionals who have a ‘tech week’, however, Croft don’t get to meet their set or costumes until the week of the show.

“It’s a tall order and I think we do very well,” says Martin, who has been involved for around 20 years. “The production is ambitious and the set is superb – the barber shop is elevated so the victims can be disposed of.

“What we can’t get away from is Todd kills people and Mrs Lovett bakes them into pies so there’s got to be blood and guts. It does have to look like I’ve killed people – but hopefully it won’t send anyone out with hair turned white.

“The audience is meant to be on his side because he was wronged and it’s revenge. It’s something he has to do. It’s tricky getting that balance right, because he’s got to be scary. Todd takes pleasure in taking revenge but you don’t see him smile very often.”

Just as central are songs such as Worst Pies In London and Little Priest that allow darker moments to be delivered with a flourish.

“It’s a great part written by one of the very best writers of musicals,” says Martin, relishing the challenge to step into Todd’s shoes.

“I’m not one of those who sits in the chair but it must feel strange waiting there for someone to come at you with a potential instrument of death.

“The deaths are all very simple and with two exceptions pretty much the same. Much of the killing is built into the musical numbers. It’s so beautifully done the killing is almost incidental.

“There’s a fascination with the macabre. We feel we know what London was like then, and in those days barbers were well respected, they were elementary surgeons. Todd would have been in a different class.”

Not least with his unique brand of ‘surgery’.

“It’s such a buzz,” adds Martin. “The emotion you’re stirring up in people, whether you’re making them laugh or cry to recoil in horror, that’s what we go to the theatre for.”