Sweeney Todd (Harrington's, Shaftesbury Avenue)
Tooting Arts Club's production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s musical has transferred to the West End
With ENO about to present thirteen semi-staged performances of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's "movie for the stage", it's a typically cheeky move of Cameron Mackintosh to make room in his West End fiefdom – in a ground-level basement on Shaftesbury Avenue – for the acclaimed Tooting Arts Club close-up version they performed in Harrington's Pie and Mash shop last October.
The improvised venue, in the middle of the block bookended by the Gielgud and the Queen's, was a rather dodgy nightclub – there was a shooting there four days after the Apollo's ceiling fell in – so it's a suitably dangerous environment, cramming just 69 customers (not head to toe) around tiled pie-shop counters, with a brilliant pianist (Benjamin Cox) and a whining violin and mournful clarinet.
The Tooting cast sing the beast of a score magnificently, covering the full range of sinister grand guignol to valse macabre, music hall oompah, plangent lyricism and ensemble clatter and chorale. No stage trap, so no barber's chair, which is a pity, but the murders are upstairs and blood-boltered Sweeney returns in a trance each time.
The cast stretch and parade themselves along the tables where we do indeed sample what Mrs Lovett calls "the worst pies in London" — I've never tasted such watery, inedible mince and pastry and such ghastly mash, and you have to pay extra for the privilege in the already steep price of admission (£47 a ticket for a mini-show on bench seating) – and where Tobias (fresh-faced Joseph Taylor) dispenses Pirelli's Miracle Elixir on the first incipient baldie he spots… my turn on Saturday night, much to Elaine Paige's amusement: "Rub a minute—stimulatin' innit? Soon you'll have to thin it, once a week!"
Apart from creating a creepy Cockney sound world, Wheeler and Sondheim are meticulously true, too, to the Victorian industrial cityscape in Chris Bond's original play (which the composer saw at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, while rehearsing Angela Lansbury in Gypsy in 1973). And Bill Buckhurst's revival boasts two leads that are as good as any I've seen in this show.
The engine of the plot – I've always felt there's far too much of it, causing lumps and sags in each half – is Mrs Lovett, whom Siobhan McCarthy presents as a slightly mad, totally impulsive and unpredictable Whitechapel witch; this isolates Jeremy Secomb's demon barber even more, locked in a staring-eyed daze of revenge, his voice glinting in his own razors – "these are my friends" – like Macbeth with his daggers, real and imagined.
Nadim Naaman is a strongly articulated Anthony, while Zoë Doano – the one cast change since Tooting – is a touching, sweet-voiced Johanna. There's sterling, heavyweight support, too, from Duncan Smith as the cruel judge bent on seducing his own ward, and Ian Mowat as Beadle Bamford. As the stage is suffused in the red lighting of Amy Mae, no-one is calling for second pies, with or without a little priest or shepherd; like Sweeney, we've supped full of horrors, and not just the management's first course.
Sweeney Todd runs at Harrington's, Shaftesbury Avenue until 30 May. Click here for more information and to book tickets.