A ship arrives from Australia, bringing a thoroughly disenchanted man to London. Equipped with shiny silver razors and assisted by one Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd sets on a murderous spree, targetting those who had wronged him. Such is the opening of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which comes to stage at Keble O’Reilly in 5th week.
Described as a story of revenge by its creator Stephen Sondheim, the musical gets interpreted differently by director Luke Rollason, who puts the emphasis on its humanity. ‘Sweeney Todd is about nine really lonely characters that find each other. That’s one of the reasons the duets are so powerful.’ This directorial choice becomes apparent in ‘My Friends’ a number performed by Todd (Andy Laithwaite) and Mrs. Lovett (Helen Wilson): the fragility of interaction and the joy of discovery of a purpose are both present in the song. Rollason explains, ‘Every bit of music is that character’s thought process. Sometimes the driving force is the contrast between the music and the lyrics, like in ‘Little Priest’ it is very dark, but set to the rythm of waltz, dum-dee-dum, so it’s almost cheerful.’
Maintaining the delicate balance between tragic and comic in Sweeney Todd is a challenge. ‘We tried not to make it into a black comedy or farce. The humour does not come from the play parodying itself’, says Rollason. Wilson adds, ‘A lot of it is realistic. Even singing, in certain scenes, can be seen as actual singing, not musical theatre.’
Routinely staged as an opera, Sweeney Todd has a demanding score. The singing nature of the play is intensified with the introduction of the chorus. (An integral part of the original script, the chorus has been left out of the, arguably, most famous adaptation: the 2007 film version by Tim Burton.) When comparing his own performance with the earlier ones, Laithwaite states he has tried to create a different version of the Demon Barber, one that wouldn’t be ‘whispering seduction, like Johnny Depp, or over the top, like Michael Ball’. Wilson, in her turn, sees Mrs. Lovett as a very hopeful character and the play, as a journey. Thus, ‘By the Sea’ becomes an anthem to the future, and Wilson’s Mrs. Lovett is both charming and refreshing.
This is an ambitious adaptation worth seeing; and if you remain unconvinced, let me add that it also envolves a revolving stage–for the first time in the recorded history of Oxford.
PHOTOS/ Romain Reglade
Sweeney Todd is playing at the Keble O’Reilly from Wednesday to Saturday of 5th week. Tickets from £8.50 http://www.wegottickets.com/milkandtwosugars