Swing your razor wide: New Theatre’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Based on a nineteenth century penny dreadful, the story of Sweeney Todd, the ‘Demon Barber’ of Fleet Street, is the stuff of legend. Whilst a largely fictional character, he is often likened to Jack the Ripper as a figure whose mythology is larger than that of any real person from the time. First published in serial form in 1846-7 as The String of Pearls, a romance, the story was quickly adapted and appropriated into different mediums, with the name Sweeney becoming ubiquitous with that of a barber. A deliciously Victorian melodrama, it has captured the imaginations of millions across the world, including those of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler who adapted Christopher Bond’s play into their successful 1979 musical.
Playing at Newtown’s New Theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of Todd, a man who is sentenced to life imprisonment in Australia under a trumped-up charge and makes his return to London, vowing vengeance upon those who removed him in the first place. Straight off the ship, he makes his way to his old stomping ground on Fleet Street, where he meets Mrs Lovett, a pie-maker with a failing business, and the result of their two devilish wits and cunning schemes is nothing short of, well, delicious. Written with panache and flair by Wheeler and Sondheim, the musical has a dark and lyrical momentum which keeps the story moving, as it combines a story of jealousy, love, horror, thrifty business. It is, by turn, a full-blooded melodrama, a Grand Guignol concoction of blood and hellish deeds, but also a pointed social commentary that is gripping, emotional and, at times, quite darkly funny.

With the New Theatre stripped back to its bare walls, a collection of shipping detritus along the rear wall, and three moving scenery trucks, director Giles Gartrell-Mills creates an intimate and vibrant depiction of this grimy nineteenth century world of vice, villainy and virtue. Simply staged, but no less involving because of it, Gartrell-Mills sustains the mood across the show’s three hour duration and creates many wonderful moments. Sondheim’s richly textured orchestral score is here pared back to just three instruments – violin, bass, and piano/organ – and at the hands and guidance of musical director Liam Kemp, nothing of Sondheim’s aural tapestry is lost; if anything, melodies and leitmotifs are heightened, more visible, more recognizable as a result, and it is every bit as thrilling as it should be; I was reminded at times of the 2004 revival production directed by John Doyle, and that is no small compliment! Brodie Simpson’s costumes also add another element of colour to the already-dark show, and under Liam O’Keefe’s lighting, they are simple, sumptuous, and suitably Victorian, a living melodrama.
The cast are very strong too, from Todd and Mrs Lovett right through to the ensemble who fill the New’s space with a vitality which is barely contained within its four walls. Justin Cotta’s Todd is not someone you’d like to meet on a dark night, and brings a refreshing unpredictability to the character; he certainly brings out Todd’s inner demons, and makes you quite scared for the safety of your own throat. His scenes with Mrs Lovett are wonderful, especially the ‘A Little Priest’ scene at the end of the first act. Lucy Miller’s Lovett is a woman who makes a little go a long way, and devises the hellish plan to get rid of the bodies that Todd disposes of on his quest for vengeance. There is a girlish capriciousness to Miller’s Lovett which plays wonderfully off Cotta’s Todd, and they are well matched. Josh Anderson as Anthony, the young sailor, is youthful and sincere in equal measure, and his scenes with Jaimie Leigh Johnson’s Joanna are moving and beautifully realized. Courtney Glass’s Beggar Woman is almost prophet-like in her visions of villainy and recognition, and brings humanity to the “half-crazed beggar woman” that no one takes notice of. Byron Watson’s Judge Turpin is perhaps younger than we are used to, but he brings his own charisma and bare-chested zeal to the role which is hard to fault; as his sycophantic officer of the law, the Beadle, Simon Ward revels in the role and brings out a charmingly slimy creature who is always happy to oblige his “friends and neighbours.” Michael Jones as Pirelli, the flamboyant Italian barber, is wonderfully over the top, and resplendent in a silver jacket and white shirt and suit, his ruffled collar and cuffs giving him the air of a peacock. Aimee Timmins as Tobias, Pirelli’s boy-assistant, is convincing, mischievous and courageous, the only one in this whole sorry tale who can bring about an end to the devilry and unspeakable horrors contained within Mrs Lovett’s meat pies.
There is an undisguised delight amongst the cast here which is thrilling to see. It’s a long show, but every bit as rewarding as it should be, very much in the grand tradition of a Victorian melodrama. If you’re familiar with Tim Burton’s film, you could be forgiven for thinking the story is rather bleak and sombre, but in its full unadulterated statement – the full three-hour show – it is thrilling, dark, magical, and quite funny at times. While there is no stage-blood here, the solution is just as appropriate in keeping with the theatricality of Gartrell-Mills’ world, and provides a lighter moment amongst Todd’s bloody retribution. The factory whistle, which punctuates the score at key moments, is rather diminished despite its function, yet as it stands, it doesn’t detract or break from the show’s momentum.
There is much to recommend about this Sweeney Todd, and it is certainly one of the stronger productions playing in Sydney this December. As Todd cuts throats and hurtles the show towards its inevitable conclusion, it’s hard not to revel in the music, the story, the characters, the whole glorious miasma of it all. As the company sings the final statement of Sondheim’s ‘Ballad of Sweeney Todd,’ we are reminded that “to seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it – and seldom as well – as Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Theatre playlist: 78. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim

No comments:

Post a Comment