Image Description: red and white promotional picture of Sweeney Todd holding his trusty razor.
CW – Graphic violence, rape, cannibalism
Does anyone escape the corruption that festers in every corner of the world? Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, with book by Hugh Wheeler, features a depraved cast of characters and a chilling plot. The show is a psychological thriller which takes the audience on a spiralling journey to the darkest parts of Victorian London.
As an avid musical theatre and Sondheim fan, I was eager to see 00 Productions’ rendition of Sweeney Todd. Directed by Imogen Albert, the show was a faithful and striking production with phenomenal cast, sets, and costumes. Albert has taken Sweeney Todd for exactly what it is: an opportunity to portray wickedness and obsession to the point of absurdity with a delightfully grotesque mixture of horror and humour. I greatly enjoyed this production and noted only a few instances where minor changes could have improved the show.
The musical tells the story of esteemed barber Benjamin Barker, who after being wrongly imprisoned and exiled returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd to enact his revenge on the judge who sentenced him and raped his wife. After deciding that “everyone deserves to die”, Todd begins to dispatch the various patrons of his barber shop, all the while hoping that he will eventually meet the judge. Abetting him is shop-owner Mrs. Lovett, who bakes the flesh of Todd’s victims into meat pies and serves them to an unsuspecting public.
In any production of Sweeney Todd, it is essential that the chemistry between the demon barber and his partner in crime is on point. Maggie Moriarty shines as Mrs. Lovett, delivering a stellar performance rife with dark humour. While Daniel McNamee is commendable in his performance as Sweeney Todd, succeeding in showing Todd’s vicious and tormented nature during his solos, he was overshadowed at times by Moriarty. However, I thought they worked well as a pair; I particularly enjoyed watching them in the number at the end of act one, “A little priest”. In this performance, the two delight in plotting future murders and indulge each other in a series of puns about the different professions who will be made into pies.
Todd’s violence is spurred by his grief over losing his family to the evil Judge Turpin, played by Noah Radcliffe-Adams. Radcliffe-Adams portrayed Judge Turpin as rigid and formal, while Declan Ryder opted for a more outward and jovial persona for Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s right hand. Ryder’s approach to his character was winning – the Beadle’s outward familiarity with the other characters grated against their obvious dislike of him, which created believable tension on stage. In contrast with the many corrupt characters are Todd’s daughter Johanna, raised by Judge Turpin in near isolation, and her love interest Anthony. Johanna and Anthony, played by Hannah O’Sullivan and Cormac Diamond respectively, are naïve characters, and O’Sullivan and Diamond’s bright, clear voices suited these characters well.
Other noteworthy performances include Molly Jones, who stood out as Toby, a boy who works for Mrs. Lovett. Jones portrays Toby as happy and energetic, but switches to a deranged and despairing persona with ease, following Toby’s mental breakdown at witnessing Mrs. Lovett’s death. Gracie Oddie-James was also excellent as the Beggar Woman/Lucy, who frantically tries to tell the rest of the cast what horrors hide behind the doors at Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, only to be ignored. Ollie Kurshid memorably brought life to Pirelli, a barber who competes with Todd for the public’s attention and becomes his first victim. While Pirelli is always portrayed flamboyantly, Kurshid still put his own unique spin on the character, emphasising his paranoia at being found out as a fraud and losing his fame.
The lead actors’ performances were complemented and enhanced by an outstanding ensemble and production team. Sweeney Todd requires a large ensemble and orchestra with many overlapping voices and instruments to properly capture the dramatic nature of the show; the recreation of Sondheim’s composition was made possible by Isaac Adni’s musical direction. The lights highlighted the characters’ internal struggles, and the set was breath-taking, capturing the macabre atmosphere of the show while also servicing the staging.
The one change I would’ve made to the production design was to make the oven door of the pie shop bigger. If Sweeney Todd’s weapon of choice is the razor, then Mrs. Lovett is associated with the oven. This is why, in the original show, Toby slits Todd’s throat after he throws Mrs. Lovett into the oven to be burned alive. In this production, this set piece was gorgeous, with ghostly orange light and smoke pouring out when it was opened . It was also a unique piece of lighting throughout the show, and the glow in the background served as a morbid reminder of the truth behind the pie shop’s financial success. I was looking forward to seeing how the oven would be used in Mrs. Lovett’s death and wondering how Moriarty was going to get through such a small door. The answer: she doesn’t. Todd slits her throat like the rest of his victims, which missed a big opportunity to use such a beautiful set piece.
Sweeney Todd is a show that mixes violence and obsession with farcicality so that the audience can enjoy the more gruesome aspects of the show while also questioning the truth of human nature. Are all people inherently evil? Who would they become if they lost everything? The overall direction and production design of this adaptation of Sweeney Todd was faithful to what the show was intended to be, and I look forward to 00 Productions’ next project.
Image Credit: promotional materials of the Oxford Playhouse.