NANCY HEATH reviews ‘Sweeney Todd’ at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop.
Bill Buckhurst’s new adaptation of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ has moved to Shaftsbury Avenue after its run at Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop in SW17 last year. In the heart of London’s West End, the pie shop has been re-erected by Cameron Mackintosh upon the recommendation of Stephen Sondheim himself. ‘Sweeney Todd’ was originally performed on Broadway back in (1979) as an extensive chorus piece. Despite being severely limited to eight actors, the way in which this performance flourishes speaks for its success as a musical. It plays equally well to an audience of 2000 or of 60.
Jeremy Secomb reprises his role as the terrifying, unhinged Sweeney Todd and Siobhán McCarthy returns as the darkly comic Mrs Lovett. There’s no escape for the cast as they stand within a hair’s breath of the audience who brush past throughout the night. They aren’t afraid to make audience members interact. Some of the cast come and sit with you before the performance starts, in full costume, and chatting idly when the room is suddenly thrown into darkness. A single candle is atmospherically lit above the piano and the Prelude starts…
In this intimate setting, with audiences cosily packed in and sat at dining tables, Sondheim’s beautiful score is allowed unrestricted reign. The full score is utilised, as opposed to the cut down version of the recent 2007 movie adaptation, and at moments the three musicians create an impression of a whole orchestra. I was in awe of Musical Director Benjamin Cox’s piano playing which was almost constant throughout the performance. He also conducted the clarinet and violin behind him – backwards I might add! All of the musicians were formidably talented.
Sondheim’s lyrics soar as the eight voices of the small cast fill the room effortlessly, flitting from the deadly horror of a grisly murder to the soppy romance of Johanna and Antony’s (Nadim Naaman and Zoë Doano) humorous “Kiss Me”. The comic edge to this song is picked out perfectly with Doano conveying its humour to great effect, satirising the ‘love at first sight’ motif which is common to many musicals.
The first act ends in the perfect mix of horror and comedy. A new side is seen to Todd: in “Epiphany” he pushes Mrs Lovett down onto the table in front of me and sings very plainly that “everyone has to die”. At this point his razor is a few inches from my face! I take a deep breath and hold it. You don’t get this sort of exhilaration or emotion up close in other West End theatres; here the action is literally happening right in front of you.
Now the cracks are showing in poor Sweeney’s façade and it’s worse than we originally thought: he’s even madder than Mrs Lovett. The song rolls into the famous “A Little Priest”, the crowd now laughing having witnessed Todd at a mere knife’s edge from butchering Lovett and himself in a double tragedy a few minutes earlier.
The cast, excepting Secomb and McCarthy, double-up as other characters effectively throughout. At the interval they interact with the audience, adding a harsh realism to the show as a woman in rags continues to beg for alms from the warmly dressed audience. There are undeniable undertones in ‘Sweeney Todd’ that critique society and especially that of the solipsism of the city. There really is “No Place Like London”.
The interval gives way to the second act on a bright note. The audience are still milling around, chatting, and interacting with the cast when Tobias calls us to attention and starts singing “God That’s Good”. Drawing us all back in for the grand reopening of Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop, filled with the beautiful smell of meat pies, there are certainly no vegetarian options in sight!
Despite the tight space, the scene transitions are handled well. A clinking of a pot to create the sound of horses’ hooves whilst Judge Turpin and the Beadle, sat facing each other, bob slightly creates a perfect horse and carriage. Likewise, the overlapping of Sondheim’s storylines and lyrics creates a duality: the Joanna-Anthony and Turpin-Beadle encounters are beautifully executed with both pairs’ taking centre stage when essential for the storyline. They walk in, pacing around each other and the audience, squatting—and dancing—on the tables and climbing on the counters. Beware – the tables are not a safe place to rest your drinks.
This production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ marks the West End’s first pop-up musical and is undeniably something people will be talking about for a long time to come. From my front row seat and thanks to a timely blood splatter during the murder of a certain judge, I even left with blood on my hands.
Tooting Arts Club’s ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – A Musical Thriller’ is showing at ‘Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop’ 39-45 Shaftesbury Avenue from 12th March to the 16th May. With this performance there is the option to book tickets to indulge in mash and a Harrington meat pie before the evening performance, made especially by Dave the Pie Maker – he’s not quite Mrs Lovett, but close.
For tickets and more information click here.
Image credited to Alastair Muir.