Stephen Sondheim is one of my favourite composers in the world of musical theatre, though I’d be the first to admit I’m not as well versed in his work as I’d like to be, so am still happily discovering it. I think his melodies are beautiful and often give me goosebumps, his lyrics can be witty, clever and profoundly moving (sometimes all in the same piece!), but the thing I admire most is the fact that his work, at least for me, says so much about the real world and challenges me to think more deeply about life and what makes us human.
In 2012, I made two visits to the Adelphi Theatre to see a marvellous production of Sweeney Todd, led by Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, and since that time I have longed for an opportunity to see the show again and late last year, some brave and creative souls from the production company Tooting Arts Club had the ingenious idea of mounting a production of Sweeney Todd at the area’s oldest Pie and Mash Shop, Harringtons. Seating only 32, complete with the optional pie and mash, and interval drinks being served across the street in a barber’s, the biggest challenge for the creative team and Tooting Arts Club’s producer Rachel Edwards was how to find a way to make it accessible to a wider audience after rave reviews and here stepped in Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who believed he had the perfect solution with premises sandwiched between the Gielgud and Queens theatres. I was unable to see the show originally, (four wheel confinement causing trouble yet again!), so imagine my joy when I was able to get myself a ticket to see it in its new temporary home on Shaftesbury Avenue this past Saturday…
The minute I entered, my jaw dropped, it’s truly astonishing what the Set Construction Team (AWAV Production Services), Scenic Artists Georgina Forster & Leanne McDonald, and Front of House Design by Drinkall Dean have created, it’s like walking into another time. I remember having a mild panic when I went to take my seat, I was on the table closest to the piano and couldn’t really manage to manoeuvre in a tight space, so a big thankyou to two ladies of the staff who were able to lift my beast of a wheelchair into a better angle than I was able to manage myself. Good job too, else there would have been actors tripping all over the place! I’m a newcomer to the idea of site specific theatre, which was an endless source of amusement for my friend Olivia who had joined me, as even before the show began I had a silly Cheshire Cat like grin on my face as I was so excited, she had already seen the show and was fully aware of the extent I was about to have my mind blown. A cast of eight, and a trio of musicians (Musical Director Benjamin Cox on Piano, Petru Cotarcea on Violin and Clarinet by Rachel Ridout) are all we have, and yet what Bill Buckhurst’s production manages to achieve is nothing short of momentous in its relentless intimacy of storytelling, and incredible sound that fills the space, along with brilliantly inventive Movement by Georgina Lamb, Lighting by Amy Mae, Sound Design by Joshua Richardson, and Design by Simon Kenny. There’s something utterly electric about the atmosphere created being in a room of sixty nine, knowing that the actors will be performing feet from you, and I don’t think I’ll ever experience a feeling of excitement and anticipation like it, intensified by the fact that some of the actors mingled with the audience prior to showtime; it was so surreal having Zoe Doano sitting next to me engaging in casual conversation knowing what she would soon be performing.
One of my major bugbears about my disability is the fact that my nerves are overly sensitive; I jump easily at anything loud, sudden or unexpected, which embarrasses me no end as I don’t mean to do it, and its worse sometimes when I’m desperately trying to keep still if I’m aware something is going to happen. That in mind, you could say this isn’t the production for me, actors in your face and the like… but I’m so glad I went, there may have been more than one occasion where I was frightened out of my skin and jumped a mile but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
Jeremy Secomb leads the cast as our Demon Barber Sweeney Todd, and gives a performance of chilling magnificence. He has an incredible voice, and commanded my attention from the minute he entered looming at the top of the stairs. Having him look down at me for even just a few seconds there was really something; he’s a master of the intense, deadly stare and the chills running down my spine from that moment were a sign I was sure to be completely and utterly enamoured by his performance, I couldn’t take my eyes from him, nor did I want to. I can say with total sincerity and confidence that his renditions of Pretty Women and his part of the Johanna quartet are the best I’ve ever heard, but the jewel in his crown vocally is his storming version of Epiphany, which sees him prowling over the tables, literally getting right in the faces of his audience, as he also does during No Place Like London. I could feel myself shaking because I was so overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of what I was seeing and hearing. Though I was extremely grateful NOT to be sat in a particular seat where he shouts right into the face of some poor soul (credit to the gentleman in question who didn’t flinch at all), Jeremy and I had a close encounter of our own, which involved him sitting next to me and brandishing a meat cleaver inches from my face… I did recoil a little here because it was again accompanied by his trademark deadly stare! Though Jeremy’s portrayal is deliciously dark, I was struck by how much he moved me in his more tragic moments, his Final Scene where he realises what he and Mrs Lovett has done broke my heart.
Jeremy’s Sweeney is partnered to perfection by Siobhán McCarthy, a wonderful Mrs Lovett who sometimes completely blurs that very fine line between darkness and comedy that her character treads to such tremendous effect that I was laughing nervously because of how disturbed I was, especially during By The Sea. Her performance is wonderfully animated and expressive, and I think she and Jeremy have wonderful chemistry. A Little Priest was marvellous, and featured another couple of awesome close encounters for me, Jeremy came and sat with me again, thankfully this time sans meat cleaver, just with a plate, a cheeky grin and a mischievous glint in his eye and Siobhán caught my eye and waved her rolling pin in my direction.
Nadim Naaman shines as Anthony Hope, easily my favourite role I’ve seen him perform to date. His rendition of Ah Miss had me fall in love with him more and more every sentence he sang, clambering on the tables, let alone Johanna later on! His Johanna is brought to beautiful soaring soprano life by Zoe Doano, in the second role I’ve seen her in. The two of them are now my favourite Anthony/Joanna pairing, in voices and acting. Their tender moments are wonderfully endearing but I also enjoyed how they both played on the subtle comedy of Kiss Me, it was adorable to watch!
Kiara Jay doubles seamlessly as Pirelli and the Beggar Woman; I think she had a ton of fun watching my reactions throughout; I was on the receiving end of an ‘Alms Alms….’ twice and even got the ‘Quick Miss! Run & Tell…’ during Searching. Ian Mowat and Duncan Smith are marvellous as Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin, each making my flesh crawl wonderfully, and I tip my hat to Ian especially during Ladies in Their Sensitivities, that last note of his is ridiculous and he made it sound so effortless. The cast is completed by Joseph Taylor as Tobias Ragg, and I was utterly smitten by him from the instant he perched on the end of the table and gave me a winning smile during Pirell’s Miracle Elixer. Like Nadim’s Anthony, Joseph’s Tobias is tremendously sweet, but as with Jeremy’s Sweeney I also felt he had a gift for the dark side, I’ll never forget his last appearance before the finale, face white with flour as he crouches with a candle. If you know how talkative I can get about shows I love, it may surprise you to know that come interval and at show end I was, I kid you not, incapable of forming a coherent sentence… people kept asking me how I was enjoying it, and I couldn’t find words to do it justice. Now it’s had two days to sink in, I can safely say that I’m pretty sure I won’t have a desire to see another production of Sweeney ever again!