Sweeney Todd continues at Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop, Shaftesbury Avenue, London until 30 May.
Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s cramped, it’s hot and it’s airless, but this new production of Sweeney Todd might just be the best version you’ll ever experience. And ‘experience’ is definitely the word, as this teeny-tiny Todd has its actors literally crawling over you to perform right in your face.
Along with librettist Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim originally conceived of what would become his magnum opus as a small, intimate affair, a parlour piece that terrified you with its closeness and claustrophobia. It was the Broadway producer Hal Prince that put the ‘Grand’ into Grand Guignol and staged the first ever production at New York’s largest theatre, the 1,900-seat Uris (renamed Gershwin). Now, more than 35 years later, Sondheim has finally seen his parlour piece as it was meant to be.
Indeed, the man himself paid a visit to the show in its first incarnation in the original Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop (opened 1908) in Tooting. While in London to catch his Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Sondheim popped over to SW17 for the last night and was positively glowing with enthusiasm for it. (And a few days earlier, the actor James Franco also stopped by and raved about the piece). Finding himself at lunch with Cameron Mackintosh a while later, the composer – who turned 85 yesterday (22 March) – urged him to help producer Rachel Edwards find a new home for the piece.
So it is that I find myself ensconced in a perfect reproduction of Harrington’s in the basement of what used to be the rather seedy club Avalon on Shaftesbury Avenue, slotted in between the Queen’s and the Gielgud. Having been to the Tooting Harrington’s, there’s something unsettling about being in this replica pop-up version, a bit like how you might experience it in a nightmare. Lit by candles and with the scent of pies in the air, it’s the perfect setting for an evening of comedy horror.
A cast of just eight brings this stripped down Sweeney Todd to life, and there’s little lost in the trimming. Gone is the mechanics of the barber chair, which is understandable, and a few scenes are chopped – if you know the piece well, the bird seller is gone, as are the entire escaped-lunatics sequences (no ‘City On Fire’, sadly) and the ‘Letter Sequence’ is reduced to dialogue, for no discernible reason other than to keep up the pace, presumably. But if you’re seeing the show fresh, you’ll be none the wiser.
Director Bill Buckhurst has done a tremendous job of compacting the show into this tiny space. The creativity and ingenuity is breathtaking, with necessity being the mother of some wonderful invention. Imaginative use is made of knick-knacks from the pie shop: tin mugs provide the sound of clattering horse hooves, a broomstick becomes a tiller on the skiff bringing Todd and Anthony into the port of London (accompanied by the sound of the Thames via water poured into a bucket, and fog horns from the actors blowing on empty bottles), a meat tenderiser doubles as the judge’s gavel, and so on. Each new invention is more joyous than the last.
But importantly, there’s more to this than mere novelty – it has tremendous performances to match all round. The Australian tenor Jeremy Secomb is a ghoulish Sweeney, with a terrifyingly intense stare and booming voice. At times, it’s not subtle – this man can belt it out, for sure, and you will not hear a better ‘Epiphany’ – but when tenderness is called for, he delivers. His partner in crime is the fantastic Siobhan McCarthy, whose Mrs Lovett is something out of a 1970s sitcom, her faux posh accent forever slipping to reveal a cracking cockney accent. This Mrs Lovett is less dark, less sinister than most; instead, she’s played as a pragmatic piemaker who’s desperately in love with Mr Todd and driven to murderous ends by her lust for money and the man.
Nadim Naaman and Zoë Doano (the only new member of the cast, replacing Grace Chapman from the Tooting production, called away on tour with The Sound of Music) are among the best Anthony and Joanna pairings I’ve ever heard, with Doano particularly making the most of the scant role. She somehow manages to tap the character for comedy and wit like no other actor has done before, and her patter singing with Naaman in the Act I quartet with the Judge and Beadle (‘Ladies in Their Sensitivities’) is, for once, discernible and comedic.
Duncan Smith’s Judge Turpin is a rotund, detestable Charles Laughtonesque beast, abetted by Ian Mowat’s odious Beadle. They take obvious delight in their evil roles. Mowat, who so delighted audiences as (among many roles) the Madame in Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures at the Union, is on top from: his brief stint as the creepy, stovepiped Jonas Fogg is straight out of Dickens, and his falsetto adds an edginess to the ensemble singing.
The remaining characters – Tobias Ragg and the Beggar Woman (who doubles with Pirelli) – are equally well cast. Joseph Taylor makes for a sweet, simple Tobias, cocky when called for but also tenderhearted and vulnerable in his keening love song to Mrs Lovett, ‘Not While I’m Around’. Definitely a talent to watch out for. And Kiara Jay is outstanding as both the Beggar Woman and the moustache-twirling Pirelli – not the first time these characters have doubled, but never has it worked so well.
Fitting a band into a pie shop is clearly not possible, but we’re treated to more than just a piano, with the addition of a haunting violin (Petru Cotarcea) and clarinet (Rachel Ridout). MD Benjamin Cox leads from the upright piano (doubling as the shrill factory whistle) and is, presumably, responsible for the very effective orchestrations.
This is a spellbinding production that will stay with you for a very long time. The pie-shop conceit, and the small band, give the whole affair an improvised, rough-and-ready feel that truly suits the subject matter. The actors are clamboring on tables, interacting with the audience (bald men beware!) and performing personally for you, but not so much as to dictate or overwhelm the show.
It’s got an honest and gritty realism that staged and even promenade productions could never replicate, and the end result is a show that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. Excuse the obvious pie punnery but this show is all meat and no gristle, and there’s not an ounce of fat on it… you’ll eat it up.
Readers may also be interested in:
Sweeney Todd – Reims Opera House, France – Review
Sweeney Todd at London Coliseum – full cast revealed – Review