Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: he served a dark and vengeful God!” After a visit to the New Theatre’s website advertising their current production of Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD, with its graphic image of a throat being cut and a viewing of the teaser video with its huge blood splash finale, one might be forgiven for thinking a dark evening is in store. In lesser hands perhaps the show could float in gore like the 2007 movie. This production, however, focuses on an exploration of what it takes to make a monster. It seems that answer is … love!
Benjamin Barker arrives back on the docks of Victorian London. He is accompanied by his shipboard companion, Anthony Hope. Anthony knows this man as Sweeney Todd. He rescued Sweeney from a mysterious shipwreck and honours his vow not to ask questions even after a mysterious beggar woman confronts them both. Sweeney’s past is revealed as he revisits his old haunts and meets up with Mrs Lovett who recognises him at once as the man she adored from afar. She has even saved his silver razors and offers him her upstairs room as a barber shop.
Having been falsely accused, imprisoned and transported by the venal Judge Turpin (Byron Watson) and his bully Beadle (Simon Ward), Benjamin has come back, not for vengeance but to find his lost heart. Learning that his wife took poison rather than submit to Turpin’s advances, Benjamin’s love begins the turn that will create the monster. When he is interrupted with the blade at the Judge’s throat during a shave, his rage completes this change and we see the Demon Barber of Fleet Street arrive. Mrs Lovett will do anything to keep the man who must surely love her now as she keeps his, and her own, secrets.
The strength of this production is in the two leads. When we first meet the titular character, we feel his sadness. His is not brash and commanding, he is broken and bereft. By the final tableau Reprise of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” he definitely is the demon. Justin Cotter, though stage presence and skilful acting, takes us with him on the arc that creates the maniac. As Mrs Lovett, Lucy Miller is maniacal from the first moment we meet her and she is mesmerizing in her devotion to Sweeney during “By the Sea”. Their voices are strong and blend well together; they have rapport and excellent timing especially in the Act 1 showstopper, “A Little Priest”. Miller is obviously having a great time and she rocks a corset!
As Anthony, Josh Anderson doesn’t quite bring his character to life in the first few scenes. He appears too diffident and quiet for a young man who has sailed the world and ‘beheld its wonders’. However, when he meets Joanna (Jamie Leigh Johnson) and they share the lyrical “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” duet he becomes the stronger of the lovers and by the end of the show he is embodiment of how love rises from its circumstances.
Tobias Ragg, the abused boy taken to her bosom by Mrs Lovett, is played by a female performer, Aimee Timmins. This is not a showy role. It requires presence and an ability to be in the moment and this is achieved very well by Timmins as she slowly builds the sympathy of the audience leading towards the climax of the piece. Her work in “Not While I’m Around” is loving and powerful.
Also excellent is Courtney Glass as the Beggar Woman who is treated so cruelly by everyone. There are other good performers in minor Principal roles and while I find some of them miscast, this did not detract from the audience’s engagement in the production. There were lots of laughs and a huge applause at the end.
The Ensemble are ever present and they are skilfully directed to have a group persona rather than individual characters. They know what is going on and what the ending will be but they stand as observers or are pulled in as participants rather than acting as any kind of Greek Chorus commenting on events. They are a very disciplined group with no loss of focus or errant movement during their long scenes standing or leaning.
The use of sound in their choreography is a revelation. Trent Kidd has moved them in time to the music and their well-timed foot stamps, mug slams and banging of the set together provides added atmosphere and punctuation to the action. The small band is onstage but discrete and the volume of cast and band works well for the venue.
Director Giles Gartrell-Mills has stripped back the New Theatre. He uses the notoriously difficult ramp to effect, has draped the stage flat storage area in rope and cheesecloth to create a docks atmosphere and he has even seconded the stage door for effect.
The lighting design by Liam O’Keefe adds interest by using area lighting in place of a followspot. His blue floods upstage need rethinking though.
Three large set pieces are wheeled and whirled around the stage to give levels and represent areas as diverse as the barber shop, an asylum or the basement entryway. These pieces are finished in dirty, blotchy grey paints to match the floor and walls of the space and they have a distinct gallows air about them.
The colour palette is also important in the costumes by Brodie Simpson. Browns and greys and dark reds for the 8 person ensemble contrasting sharply with the whites of the Principal’s shirts and Joanna’s white dresses.
I’m not sure if it was Director or the Costume Designer who conceptualized the way in which the slaughter is handled but not only does it get a laugh, it adds depth to the finale.
Those of us who love musical theatre have seen SWEENEY TODD before, probably several times and may never tire of it. My friends are not like me. They didn’t want to go, thinking it would be too bloodthirsty. Joanna sings, “I did love you even as I saw you”. They are now converts in the same way and that suits me because I want to go and see it again and they will be joining me!
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is playing Thursday – Saturday with a Sunday Matinee at the New Theatre, Newtown until 20th December.
For more about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, visit http://newtheatre.org.au/whats-on/season-2014/sweeney-todd/