Barbarous barber brings bloodshed to the Playhouse

Art & Lit Stage

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“Shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.” Probably the best line in any musical ever. It actually sums up the plot pretty neatly: Sweeney Todd, hard-done-by barber, finds a way with his landlord (hard-up purveyor of pies Mrs Lovett) to have his cake – perhaps pie here – and eat it too. Cannibalistic waltzes through the Dickensian grime of London ensue. Think barbershop quartet with razor-sharp wit.

The stage at the Playhouse reminds me of that first page of Bleak House: foggy, muggy, mucky, muddy. In the rafters of Fleet Street, this Victorian slum accommodates Sweeney Todd’s Tonsorium, complete with booby-trapped barber’s chair, which flings many a cast member into the fiery pits of Mrs Lovett’s charnel house. Lovett’s monstrous oven and meat grinder are grisly and grotesque, yet still outright hilarious. A deep red light turns Todd’s barbershop into an abattoir every time he saturates the stage with his bloody murder, provoking gurgles of hellish delight from the audience.

Sondheim himself described Sweeney Todd as “a movie for the stage”, which is a problem seeing that Sweeney Todd has now been transformed into a movie, and so far, the musical sounds like the movie. How can this production surpass the likes of Depp and Bonham-Carter? The most inspired addition to the script is the Greek chorus. Whilst the movie cut out all the choral numbers, here the Greek chorus adds a new layer of interpretation: faceless narrators that float in and out, they fill in the gaps of the storyline. Used in classical Greece as a solemn and serious dramatic component, the chorus here were employed deftly as an emotional interface, stressing both the protagonists’ anguish and sick glee.

Alex Williams as maniacal Todd, a gleam of utter insanity in his eyes, was a delight to watch along with Clare Dovey-Wilson as Lovett, who brought out both her character’s heart-wrenching devotion to Todd and nonchalant anthropophagy with gusto. Dovey-Wilson’s duet with Guy Grimsley as Toby was hauntingly beautiful; amidst all the macabre comedy, it was sobering to see Lovett’s pangs of guilt clash with her maternal affection for Toby.

But the shave wasn’t close enough. The cast’s vocal abilities were overall impressive, although harmonies were a bit hit and miss. Mike Fernott as Anthony, the hopeless romantic, delivered powerful solos but had a robotic stage presence. There were a few technical difficulties, plunging key cast members into a microphoneless abyss at crucial moments. In the crowd scenes, the opposite was true. The company, playing a rabble in the marketplace, got so carried away in ebullience that the leads were left sidelined, leaving the audience unable to hear anything coherent. The company’s costumes were also half-hearted here and there, some looking a bit too dolled-up to convey slovenly urchins, lunatics and floozies.

So it was rough around the edges, but in the grand scheme of things this didn’t detract from the gruesome fun to be had. The show-stopping tunes are still running through my head, and I don’t think I’ll be able to stomach Pieminister ever again.

The Oxford Operatic Society’s production of Sweeney Todd is showing at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 16th November at 7.30pm, with a matinée at 2.30pm on Saturday. Tickets £16 for students and available here.

PHOTO/ Oxford Operatic Society