REVIEW: Sweeney Todd, Harringtons ✭✭✭✭✭

Siobhan McCarthy and Jeremy Secomb in Tooting Arts Club's Sweeney Todd.
Siobhan McCarthy and Jeremy Secomb in Tooting Arts Club’s Sweeney Todd. Photo: Bronwen Sharp

Sweeney Todd
Harringtons Pie and Mash Shop, Shaftesbury Avenue
19 March 2015
5 Stars

Despite the fact that there is quite a lot of talk of pies, food is never foremost in one’s mind when experiencing productions of Stephen Sondheim (lyrics and score) and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. But sitting at a bench a stone’s throw from the counter in the pop-up Harringtons Pie and Mash Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue, it was impossible not to think about food.

Or, at least, hunger.

Todd’s hunger for revenge. The Judge’s hunger for Joanna. Mrs Lovett’s hunger for money and respectability. Pirelli’s hunger for money and fame. The Beadle’s hunger for being valued and status. The Old Woman’s hunger for kindness and intimacy. Anthony and Joanna’s hunger for each other, freedom and their future. Tobias’ hunger to be loved – and for a full belly. Hunger is everywhere in Sweeney Todd. It is almost a character in its own right.

In the confined, almost oppressive atmosphere of the pie shop, with patrons sharing the benches or looking directly at you, with the cast performing/singing literally in your face, this is as visceral and disturbing a production of Sweeney Todd as you are ever likely to experience. You don’t watch this production; it happens to you, around you. You are part of the experience. And you hunger for it.

Eschewing grandeur and wisely opting to follow that sensible motto, adored by Sondheim and makers of truly scary horror tales for stage and screen – Less Is More – this transfer of the Tooting Arts Club production of late 2014 is a complete triumph in every way. It takes you by the throat and clasps you firmly in its thrall for its entire duration. It is shockingly powerful, brutally honest, raw and rich at the same time. A cast of eight, a band of three, clever but simple lighting, the potent power of blood and candles, economy in every department, a dedication to the text and the score: these are the ingredients of this absolute success.

You might hear better sung versions. You might see more elaborate sets and costumes. You might hear fuller sounds from larger orchestras. You might see a production that boasts TV or Movie or even Stage stars. You might see Arena productions or productions in large venues with fabulous sound systems. You might see productions with more gifted actors or more conceptually confronting directors. Whatever.

It is unlikely you will ever experience Sweeney Todd quite in this way ever again.

In the programme, Sir Cameron recounts the tale of Stephen Sondheim who, having seen this production, told him he “had been blown away by its intense intimacy, with this terrifying tale being literally performed in your face as you sat at the table wondering who would be eaten next”. Quite.

They say that Necessity is the mother of invention, but perhaps Bill Buckhurst is the mother of Necessity. What he has achieved here, as director of this extraordinary Sweeney Todd, is really remarkable. He has reduced it to its fundamental elements and then unleashed the spare, violent heart of it directly into the eyes and soul of the audience.

Musical director Benjamin Cox is equally complicit. What he can achieve in an enclosed space with a whistle is truly heart-stopping. And who would have thought that one superbly played piano, violin and flute could have conjured up the musical support for this operatic score? Yet, it completely does – partly because the eight voices work so hard and so well to fill out the sound and texture.

Yet, this is the key to this production. Economy. Ghastly murders are pulled off with a sudden pulse of red light and some shadowy action; Pirelli is strangled in front of you – literally; Anthony sits next to you and pines for Johanna while singing Johanna; Todd or Tobias or Judge Turpin look directly into your eyes as they sing about some matter of importance. The cast mingle with the audience, placing them in the thick of the action. There is nothing quite like Sweeney Todd turning his murderous gaze at you and bellowing. It’s a connection you simply can’t have in a proscenium theatre.

The performances are open and honest. Understandably, given how exposed the cast are in this pie shop. You hear lines of harmony you have never heard before, snatches of dialogue or verse you have never heard before, comic or dramatic interactions you have never heard before. With a cast of eight, everything revels in clarity. Beautifully. Artistically. Stylishly.

Because of the intimacy, key aspects of the action work effortlessly: Anthony’s yearning for Johanna, Mrs Lovett’s desire for Todd, Tobias’ gentle insanity, the Beadle’s obsequious hideousness, Todd’s maniacal obsession for revenge. When you have Todd staring directly into your eyes while singing about murder – your experience of the show is entirely fresh.

Amy Mae’s lighting is exceptional and complements the claustrophobic design from Simon Kenny. Todd’s sudden first entry, descending stairs, shrouded in darkness but with strong light tantalisingly close, is powerful and alarming, clearly establishing both Todd’s status as Revenger and the upstairs place from whence he came as ‘the bad place’. Red light is used judiciously to create a sense of sudden, sharp, bloody murder or the rapacious hunger of flames. Candlelight evokes romance and fear in equal measure.

Kenny’s costumes, too, enhance the mood in almost imperceptible ways. There is scant colour used in them – black, white, grey, and the odd, muted, primary colour dominates. This lets the viscous red of spilt blood overwhelm (when it comes) in a startling way. Equally, combined with low level lighting, the costumes allow the imagination to see the dank, dark and desperate places where much of the action occurs.

The casting here is spot on. Apart from Todd and Mrs Lovett, everyone plays more than one role; as a whole the ensemble is greater, much greater, than the sum of its parts or of the burning star of any individual talent.

Jeremy Secomb is a marvellously malevolent, driven Todd. Physically, he is perfect for the role: tall, barrel-chested, fearsome. He opts to play Todd like a Golem: wide-eyed, inhuman, driven to exact revenge. It is inspired as an approach, and the effect in a confined space is akin to that of a grenade going off in a concrete bunker: loud, echoing, deadly. Wonderful.

Secomb establishes the edges of Todd’s insanity right from the beginnng. His vicious and unhinged bellowing at Anthony before they have parted in London sets up the relationship perfectly, so that, later, when Todd screams at Anthony to get out, you understand, completely, why Anthony comes back: he has seen this extreme behaviour before and believes Todd will rebalance.

His voice has not the natural gravel one associates with murder, but Secomb has complete control of his voice and can shape the very bottom into the notes and gravitas necessary. His soft singing and full belt top notes are chilling and thrilling. When he locks eyes with audience members he never lets go – like a singing Anaconda his powerful eyes bite into you as his rich, vibrant voice gives edge and full flavour to Sondheim’s demanding score.

Siobhán McCarthy brings a hearty, natural earthiness to Mrs Lovett. She gets all the jokes, easily, and is very much a woman. Her performance is laced with sex and irony and the great virtue of her achievement here is that she makes Nellie the “normal one”. She sings fabulously and has no need to switch obviously from chest to head voice: every aspect of her singing seems wonderfully normal – so her brutality and complicity in murder is shocking.

It is, sadly, very easy for the key roles of Anthony and Joanna to be soppy and dull; the vocal demands are great and when combined with the need for physical beauty, can mean that the ability to act and portray emotions is considered disposable. Not here. This is one of the best matched, vocally, physically, dramatically, pairings I have ever seen.

Zoë Doano is wistful, pretty, and naive as Johanna, but she has spunk too. When she bites into Todd’s arm to escape his razor in Act Two, everyone feels the teeth breaking the skin, just as they feel her determination to dispatch Fogg after his ill-treatment of her in the asylum. Her independence is carefully portrayed, along with her desperate desire for Anthony. Doano has an agile voice, the top of which is slightly strained on occasion, but the overall impression is powerful and pleasing. It is difficult not to want to be buried in her yellow hair, so winning is her performance. Her Green Finch and Linnet Bird was very nicely judged.

As Anthony, Nadim Naaman is everything he needs to be: virile, loyal, handsome, honest and pining for the girl of his dreams, willing to do anything to secure her hand, free her from her dire Guardian. Naaman has an easy, comfortable style, very manly but totally besotted. His voice is creamy and beautifully tuneful; he has a free, impressive top that permits excellent harmonies and soaring melodies. His work with Doano in the Kiss Me duets is inspired and he handles Johanna exceptionally well, with an easy legato that is unerring.

Joseph Taylor makes an impressive West End debut as Tobias. He has a beguiling charm which is ideal for Tobias, a winning smile and infectious, enthusiastic delivery. Taylor has an excellent tenor sound which he puts to good advantage in the ensemble work and also in Pirelli’s Magical Elixir and Not While I’m Around (although in the second verse of that song it was disappointing that he did not attack the top note in full voice; he easily has the range). He is a splendid actor and his unravelling after Mrs Lovett betrayed him was perfectly judged.

There is excellent character work from both Ian Mowat (Beadle Bamford/Fogg) and Duncan Smith (Judge Turpin). Vocally, both deliver the goods, even though Mowat relies too much on his excellent falsetto and Smith could do with fleshing out the lower end of his range. Kiara Jay surprised as an remarkably effective Pirelli (one of the rare occasions when the notes were not in constant jeopardy) although her Beggar Woman was not as disciplined, affecting or well sung as might be desired.

This is an exceptional and unique opportunity to experience Sweeney Todd on an intimate, confrontational scale. Don’t miss it.

Sweeney Todd is running until Saturday 30 May at Harrington’s Pie And Mash Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue.

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