Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
At the Barrow Street Theatre on Barrow Street
BS Rating: A+
Show-Score Rating: 97
One of the tests of greatness for a theatre work is its ability to be reinterpreted in ways that give the audience a fresh perspective without losing the essential qualities of the work itself. The Tooting Arts Club’s extraordinary production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is just such a verification, not that there was any doubt that this “musical thriller” is one of the great works of the post-Golden Age of musical theatre.
Tooting Arts does not actually change any aspect of the show itself – the book, the music, and the period are held sacred. But unlike most revivals of this show, Tooting Arts makes this an intimate drama, rather than the large scale, quasi-operatic versions so frequently presented. The Barrow Street Theatre has been converted into a meat pie shop and many members of the audience sit on benches at tables in the center of the action (not to worry, there are regular seats in and under the theatre’s balcony). This is environmental theatre at its finest. All too frequently this type of theatre distracts the audience from the play itself, focusing on the setting rather than amplifying the material. This production does the opposite – you in the environment and there is no escape from this story of love and revenge. There is no fourth wall to protect the audience and distance these 19th century English low-life characters. We are in the drama.
The power of this production comes from the relative simplicity of its elements. Eight actors portray the main characters and shift into an ensemble chorus when necessary. The show is accompanied by a violin, a clarinet, and piano played by the production’s very talented music director, Matt Aument. The cast is without fault. Jeremy Secomb is a scary Sweeney. He can stand right next to you and give a blank stare that draws you into his world while making you just a little bit afraid as you lose the sense that this is an actor, not a real serial killer. Siobhan McCarthy manages to give a fresh portrait of Mrs. Lovett, even for those of us who cannot get Angela Lansbury out of their minds. Matt Doyle, as the hopelessly romantic Anthony Hope, is the consistent barer of normalcy against terrors of this horrifying story. He also has very sweet tenor voice that makes his love ballads into respites of beauty. The rest of the cast is equally terrific, each bringing new insights and entertaining twists to these dark characters.
But the real allure of this production is the clarity and the effectiveness of the way it reveals the wonderful marriage between Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s book. Many see Sondheim’s ability to endow his words with the same power he gives to his music as his major contribution to the modern musical. The intimacy of the Barrow Street environment and the company’s careful attention to detail amplifies this power and we are drawn into this world in ways no large-scale production could accomplish.
If you have difficulty with productions that break the fourth wall and “touch” the audience, then get seats under or in the balcony. But be warned: you will miss some of the excitement and truly scary moments that make this production a compelling call to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”