Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Tooting Arts Club
Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, 39 -45 Shaftesbury Avenue

Jeremy Secomb (Sweeney Todd) and Duncan Smith (Judge Turpin) Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Siobhan McCarthy (Mrs Lovett) and Jeremy Secomb (Sweeney Todd) Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Joseph Taylor (Tobias Ragg) Credit: Bronwen Sharp

Most attempts at what has been come known as immersive theatre get so lost in the immersion that the performance is a disappointment.

Tooting Arts Club’s chilling but intimate new version of Sweeney Todd, like the ground-breaking La Bohème by OperaUpClose, is the exception that proves the rule, drawing its spectators in and then seizing them by the throat.

This production was originally staged in a real pie and mash shop in Tooting, so it is somewhat ironic that, with the assistance of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the company has now recreated the authentic emporium underneath the Gielgud Theatre.

For 2½ gripping hours, an audience of around 60 is seated at long restaurant tables within inches of performers, sometimes finding them literally in their faces as they swooped through the narrow playing space or bounce around on the tables.

A cast of seven, supported by a musical trio and expertly directed by Bill Buckhurst, works exceptionally hard to ensure that we have fun and it works to perfection.

There may be a few rough edges but that is part of the charm of a production, which is deliberately attempting to depict the seamier side of London life.

From the atmospheric opening in which a silhouetted Sweeney Todd appears at the top of a staircase, the drama hits top gear and stays there.

Jeremy Secomb plays the title character with a grim determination, never cracking a smile nor even suggesting that life is worth living.

His foil is Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs Lovett, purveyor of “the worst pies” in London until her new lodger begins to supply large quantities of fresh meat.

These two act more than capably and sing well enough, giving great feeling to their performances. Their burgeoning relationship is paralleled by that between Sweeney’s handsome friend Anthony, Nadim Naaman and pretty young ingénue Johanna.

The latter is played by Zoë Doano who could well be a star of the future and gives her all whether singing sweetly (especially while envying the "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"), playing the put-upon heroine or filling in during crowd scenes, happily chatting to the guests.

Benjamin Cox directs the music from the piano, filling the small space with the assistance of the cast members, who sometimes give the impression that they are trying to project to the back of the theatre upstairs rather than the tiny basement.

With catchy tunes and the tale of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who having returned from a life sentence in Australia, seeks revenge for the loss of his wife and daughter this is inevitably a striking and memorable musical.

While the subject matter might sound grim, there is comedy particularly in the scene where Sweeney challenges Signor Pirelli to a shaving contest, the latter giving an unusual doubling to Kiara Jay, who dispenses with her moustache to take on the role of The Beggar Woman.

In support, Joseph Taylor as Tobias shows great commitment and ability, while Duncan Smith is suitably sinister as Judge Turpin, the kind of baddie who normally only appears in pantomimes.

With strong singing, those edgy tunes that feel even more dangerous when cleavers and cutthroat razors flash within inches of those closest to the stage and energetic performances all round, this should be a sure-fire hit that deserves to have a future life when the pie shop under Shaftesbury Avenue begins its conversion into an upmarket restaurant in May.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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