FringeReview UK 2016
Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Everyone knows at least the bones of the story (Sorry!), and we all experience a delicious frisson of horror from the gory details. Stephen Sondheim turned it into a musical, and it’s that version that’s been produced at 88 London Road.
The story originally appeared in nineteenth century ‘Penny Dreadful’ papers, and Director Conor Baum has kept that Victorian setting for this production. Baum has slashed the cast (Sorry, again!) to just eight actors, doubling up where necessary to produce all the roles. He has characters reading us details of Sweeney Todd’s doings from sensationalist news-sheets. There were generally four of them coming to the front of the stage, and they acted very like the Chorus in classical Greek theatre.
The whole musical can be seen as a Greek Tragedy. As a line at the end says – “To seek Revenge may lead to Hell”. Someone does a bad thing, and the consequences of that action echo down through the years. Benjamin Barker was a Fleet Street barber, whose wife Lucy was lusted after by Judge Turpin. The judge falsely accused the barber, sentencing him to fifteen years transportation to Australia. Subsequently the judge raped Lucy, who took poison and went insane, and he took her daughter Johannah to bring up himself as his ward.
Now the barber has returned, calling himself Sweeney Todd, and harbouring a quite reasonable hatred for the judge. But when he learns of the fate of his wife and daughter, that changes to an obsession for revenge, against Judge Turpin principally but finally against humanity in general. Sweeney Todd has his Epiphany –
“I will get him back even as he gloats
In the meantime I’ll practice on less honourable throats
And my Lucy lies in ashes
And I’ll never see my girl again”
Callum McArdle is a powerfully built actor, with a hard square face and dark eyebrows over piercing eyes. He played Sweeney Todd as a man driven beyond his limits, mounting the aisle of the seating rake to declaim to God; vowing –
“I will have Vengeance
I will have Salvation”
Sweeney Todd teams up with Mrs Lovett, his ex-landlady and owner of the pie shop. Alice Redmond gave us a multi-faceted portrait of a woman driven by the hunger, not for revenge, but for Profit. A mass of black hair (a wig?) made Redmond’s oval face much rounder, framing her large, generous eyes, and she can do comedy and cunning equally well. She put on a wistful, longing expression while comforting Sweeney Todd. She’s certainly in love with him – she’s kept his razors for him all those years – but what she wants most of all is to make enough money from her pie shop to fund a comfortable retirement by the sea. Preferably ‘married good and proper’ to Todd. In the meantime, like a proper capitalist, she’s quite happy to use his victims as cost-free filling in her meat pies – indeed it’s Mrs Lovett who comes up with the idea in the first place
It’s a musical, of course, and we were swept away by Sondheim’s unmistakable music and lyrics. I personally think that Sondheim’s lyrics are just as witty as those of W S Gilbert. In ‘A Little Priest’, for example, Lovett and Todd discuss the merits of the individuals who will be turned into her pies –
“Here’s the politician, so oily
It’s served with a doily”
“Try the friar
Fried, it’s drier.
No, the clergy’s really
Too coarse and too mealy
Then actor, that’s compacter
Yes, and always arrives overdone”
There were just a few lapses in audibility by individuals, but in the duets and the big numbers the company really let rip, filling the space and hammering home the songs. At one point, Todd and Turpin sing a duet, when the barber has the judge in his chair, and I was still humming ‘Pretty Women’ to myself for most of the next day – I’m humming it again as I write this.
The singing was powerfully supported by a trio of musicians – led by Ellen Campbell on keyboard, with Carl Greenwood, also on keyboard, and Nicola Brazier producing deep haunting notes on cello. .
For me, the story revolves around three different types of morality.
Sweeny Todd is a very moral person; but as we’ve seen, he’s been driven to the end of his tether, and now he despises humanity in general.
Mrs Lovett, by contrast, is a totally amoral person. She really has no conscience at all
Judge Turpin is a completely immoral person. He’s quite prepared to destroy a man’s family to satisfy his lust, and now he’s obsessed by Johannah, who’s by this time a young woman. But he’s not simply a caricature evil villain – the flagellation scene gives him depth as a character; shows that he recognises that his passions are wrong, and he’s trying to punish himself for succumbing to them.
Interestingly, this scene is often cut from productions of ‘Sweeney Todd’ – it was considered too strong for American audiences in the original Broadway show – but Conor Baum has wisely included it here. It’s immensely powerful – Stuart Simons is a strongly built actor; majestic, his imperious face bearded and his eyebrows arched, and with sleek greying hair above a high forehead. Stripped to the waist, on his knees, he’s watching Johannah through a keyhole –
“The light behind your window
It penetrates your gown
I see the sun through your …
Slashing himself over and over across the bare back with a cat o’ nine tails. There’s the possibility, of course, that the self-administered whipping actually adds to the excitement of ogling Johannah’s body.
I’ve concentrated on the three pivotal characters of the story, but of course there are many others too. This was a real ensemble production, with talent shared right across the cast. Scene by scene they would become passers-by in the street, victims in the barber’s chair, lunatics in the asylum, hungry diners in the pie shop. We had Dale Adams and Charlotte Clitherow as Anthony and Johannah, the young lovers; Alistair Higgins as Toby Ragg, the boy who is taken in by Mrs Lovett. Rebecca Bowden made amazing transformations between the beggar-woman and Pirelli, Todd’s barber rival. While Bowden played both characters as grotesques, Samuel Cifford gave a truly menacing performance as Beadle Bamford – Clifford has a lean face to begin with, and he set his lips in a sneer that turned the Beadle into a really nasty piece of work
How do you give an audience the Pie Shop and the Barber’s Shop, as well as all the other locations? Cath Prenton’s set design allowed the action to flow on various levels, constantly changing the focus of our attention. A wooden platform construction, seemingly built out of old bits of weathered timber slatted together –
once it was thrown into relief by the warm backlights and side lighting it produced a chiaroscuro effect, beautifully evoking the narrow streets and overhanging buildings of Dickensian or Victorian London.
The upper level could be used as the barber shop, which was drenched in a red toplight when Todd despatched his victims. They reappeared as corpses on the lower level, which could also switch seamlessly from the basement pie factory to the streets outside. With no distracting scene changes, the whole production showed the minimalism and creativity which characterises Baum’s work. As a typical example, the white cloths used to cover bits of the set could be draped round actors’ heads and shoulders, transforming them – and their location – instantly into patients in the lunatic asylum.
Sometimes, the mark of a great production is that it seems much bigger than it actually is. James Weisz has put together a cast of actor/singers with the talent to give us an unforgettable rendition of Sondheim’s classic that feels almost like a West End show. Likewise, director Conor Baum has provided the framework to let them get on with the job.
A low-resolution set, with no clearly defined edges or details, which encourages the audience to imagine most of the features for ourselves. Scene changes which flow seamlessly from location to location without halting the action. Evocative lighting that produces depth and perspective to the locations – sometimes sharply isolating a character in foreground, sometimes losing them in background gloom. And truly effective direction – blocking and movement which sometimes took actors right out of the acting space, up the seating aisle, among the audience. A really three-dimensional effect, making full use of the height and cavernous space at 88 London Road.