When I was working as an usher at the English National Opera last year, I saw Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street a whole 12 times, which for some would probably be almost enough times to send them on a bloodthirsty killing spree, themselves. But being quite so familiar with the show, I think it says something about just how good this musical is that I was willing, actually very keen, to see it one more time, at Queen’s College this week.
With hilarious and intelligent lyrics, a great plot and brilliantly memorable music, composer (and in my mind, demi-god) Stephen Sondheim essentially hands any director the raw ingredients for a bloody good show, and implores them to do it justice. I am relieved to say that the production at Queen’s more than did Sweeney Todd justice – they put on a great show, ticking almost all conceivable boxes.
For anyone not familiar with the tale, Sweeney Todd is a story about vengeance and bloodlust, set in Victorian London. Having been wrongly incarcerated and transported to Australia 10 years earlier, Sweeney has finally escaped and returned to London. When he discovers that his beloved wife has since poisoned herself, and that his daughter, Johanna, is now in the care of the malicious Judge Turpin who originally trumped up his charge and had him sent away, Sweeney swears to kill the Judge and his greasy assistant, Beadle. Mrs Lovett, a penniless independent woman and owner of a failing pie business, soon converts his need for revenge into a profitable (though morally questionable) endeavour. Sweeney gets his fix of gore, slitting the throats of the men who come to his barber shop, and she gets fresh meat for her pies. As Sweeney gets closer and closer to the Judge, however, a downward spiral begins.
Initially this version of Sweeney Todd was intended to be a garden performance, but on opening night, when I went, the show had to be moved indoors to the Shulman Auditorium. Although I imagine the outdoor setting gives the show a very different, less conventionally ‘theatre-y’ feel, and probably lends the music a much darker, spookier tone as the sun sets throughout the evening, I was personally quite relieved it had rained. It would have been cold, we agreed, as we stood outside in the interval.
The staging was simple but effective, basically doing its job (most of the time – there was definitely an iffy moment when a staircase wobbled more than it should have). For the most part, the set was composed of unmoving objects such as a table, a bookshelf, a large mirror in centre stage, adjusted only by the addition of the occasional low stool carried in by chorus members. The accompaniment was slimmed down to just piano, double bass, harp and one, lonely, drum, which all sounds a bit threadbare on paper, but actually worked very well. Sondheim’s music is so dense with text, and so full of counterpoint, that with a larger orchestration, it quite often becomes difficult to hear what is being said. A smaller orchestra was actually a blessing, allowing the words to be better understood and better received. Being a little on the picky side, I would say that the lighting was really the only give-away that the production was not always intended to be performed indoors, as the auditorium didn’t seem to be kitted out with proper theatre lights, and so, every now and then, the singers were left standing in partial darkness, or the lighting seemed oddly bright for a night-time scene – a mildly distracting, but certainly not irredeemable sin, and one that I imagine may well disappear when the performance is taken back outside.
But all this is somewhat peripheral. The trick to truly nailing Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical is definitely in the casting, which is where the production absolutely went right. Sweeney, seemingly a cruel and hateful man, is really characterised by his endless inner grief and his subsequent need for brutal, long-awaited revenge. Terrifying, sure, but he’d be a bit gloomy on his own. Thankfully, Mrs Lovett is there to provide some joviality. A down-to-earth, wildly-expressive character whose very name conjures up innuendo and a twee, misleading level of homeliness, Mrs Lovett is the pragmatic and comedic relief to the tragedy of Sweeney’s all-consuming hatred. Eoghan McNelis and Lila Chrisp did a smashing job of playing the pair. Both sang wonderfully, colouring their words well with emotion – particularly McNelis, whose booming, enraged bass came as a bit of a surprise after the first half, in which Sweeney largely spits out his words with a permanent scowl. Chrisp’s gaudy performance was one of the most memorable things about the play; her comic timing was faultless throughout, and her singing was note-perfect, and full of character. It was clear too, from the chorus’ performance, that a lot of rehearsal had gone into the show, exemplified in a number of well-choreographed scenes and particularly expressive deaths. Other special mentions go to Kathy Peacock as Beggar Woman (a bigger role than it sounds), who clearly had a beautiful voice, and to Nils Behling as the hilariously camp Pirelli.
In summary, an excellent production of a musical which absolutely deserves its renown. It’s just a shame that the production will not be put on at a larger, better equipped theatre. I’m sure it would have sold out just as this run has, and without question, the production is more than deserving of a bigger audience.