In an interview with Whatsonstage.com, Guardian drama critic Michael Billington explained why Stephen Sondheim’s Victorian thriller about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is his favourite musical. Sondheim, said Billington, “demonstrates a great understanding of the form”, which means that Sweeney Todd is capable of working “at every kind of level - performed as a chamber piece, a vast musical or an operatic epic”.
In this Watermill Theatre production, director John Doyle has opted for the more modest – and self-consciously so - end of the spectrum, which is entirely fitting for the intimacy of the West End’s most exciting new venue, the Trafalgar Studios, where it’s now transferred.
All of teeming late 18th-century London is rendered by a cast of just nine, who not only play the characters but also the absent orchestra’s musical instruments. As with Doyle’s other recent multi-tasking musical companies (Gondoliers, Fiddler on the Roof), you can’t help but marvel at the immense talent of these actor-singer-musicians, even when, at the most crucial moments, the encumbrances of their instruments prevent them from properly engaging, either with each other or the audience.
The production makes other notable reductions elsewhere. Design-wise for example (also care of Doyle), Todd’s famous revolving chair is represented by a small red box, Mrs Lovett’s pies are made of thin air and Johanna’s yellow hair (referred to repeatedly in Sondheim’s lyrics) is the actress’ natural, um, brown (could they not even afford a wig?) – all situated on a single set where a coffin and buckets are put through their paces.
Such minimalism requires the audience to work their imaginations that much harder, which most are happy to do. But I fear, for those not already familiar with the story, many of the scenes will be difficult to follow – even determining which room you’re in and who’s in it is challenging. On the other hand, Sondheim aficionados may be disturbed by judicious, sometimes inexplicable, cuts to the book.
Still, it’s another intriguing interpretation to add to the production history of this most malleable musical.
- Terri Paddock
NOTE: The following review dates from February 2004 and this production's original run at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury.
The real-life mass murderer Sweeney Todd was hanged in 1802. The blood-curdling tale of how, with Mrs Lovett, the pie shop owner, he literally made mincemeat of his customers, has inspired playwrights and filmmakers - and latterly, Stephen Sondheim, who describes his take on the story as A Musical Thriller.
Sondheim, inspired in his turn by Christopher Bond’s 1970s play, gives the story depth by giving Todd a motive for madness and murder. An unscrupulous judge transports Todd for life on a trumped-up charge to get his way with his beautiful wife. Todd escapes to find he’s lost both wife and child, and his revenge sets in motion the terrifying chain of events charted in this most operatic of Sondheim’s works.
John Doyle frames his production in a lunatic asylum, and reminiscent of Peter Brook’s legendary Marat /Sade, suggests the inmates are acting out the play. Tobias (Sam Kenyon), the youth taken in by Mrs Lovett, first appears gagged and strait-jacketed under the watchful eye of Stephanie Jacob’s asylum keeper. With some justification, since Tobias is driven mad by events.
Sadly, however, this directorial concept slows down the action, adding unnecessary business before it even gets underway. A set, incorporating a ladder and coffin for levels and symbolism, makes the space seem cramped and the actors somewhat static. A Brechtian treatment of the grisly deaths, with victims donning bloodstained white coats, while buckets of blood are poured in a blood-red light, doesn’t help matters.
Normally I’m a great fan of actor/musicians, but sometimes the instruments get in the way here, for example restricting Tobias’ reactions to Mrs Lovett as she declares ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you’. And the costumes, from the asylum’s dressing-up box, with Mrs Lovett in miniskirt and popsocks and Joanna in nightie and bridal shoes, don’t work for me either.
Rebecca Jackson is potentially convincing as the mad Beggar Woman whose fate is fatally linked to Todd’s, but she’s hampered by some of Doyle’s blocking and a device obliging characters to address much of their speech out front.
Nonetheless, the power of the piece, at once arousing and chilling, does come through, largely thanks to some powerful performances, dominated by Paul Hegarty’s mesmerising Todd. Karen Mann’s Mrs Lovett provides an ideal comic foil, sly and lustful, and Rebecca Jenkins as Johanna sings as beautifully as one of the songbirds in her first aria.