So I’m not going to try and hide it. I’m rather partial to a bit of Sweeney T and his rolling-pin-wielding counterpart. Introduced to me by my composition teacher at RNCM I was told: “Listen to this. You’ll like it.” And like it I did!
Three years on and I’ve now seen a grand total of nine live productions (and rather a few filmed versions) and I still have the Sweeney bug.
I think the main thing that appeals to me is that Sondheim manages to put a piece of complex contemporary music in front of an audience, and even those that would rather eat one of Mrs Lovett’s pies than go to a Birtwistle concert, are enthralled and enchanted by it. And don’t even get me started on the lyrics. They are bold. They a beautiful. They are barmy.
Tooting Arts Club. The production company first brought Sweeney to Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop in 2014 and to be honest I wasn’t blown away by the idea. I’ve seen my fair share of site-specific and/or immersive work over the years, and they always seem to promise the earth and deliver very little. However, Sweeney is Sweeney (or Sween-EH if you’re from Bury) and so when we heard it was transferring to Shaftesbury Avenue courtesy of Mr Mackintosh it seemed a no brainer. (‘We’ of course refers to myself and my better and even more Sonheim-crazed half Scott Stait.)
I was completely blown away. Yes the concept seems kind of obvious – but what Tooting Arts Club have done is taken the concept as a starting point and built upon it with spot-on characterisation and an obvious flair for storytelling. From the moment Sweeney appeared on the stairs, lit so beautifully by Amy Mae Smith, I knew we were in for a treat.
Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy proved to be a formidable pair. Their eyes alone held the attention of the entire room: Secomb’s full of hatred and despair, while McCarthy’s danced with wit and malice. There is often a tendency to “over-sing” Sondheim, but Secomb kept the character at the forefront of his voice, and his flashes from enraged to devastated were particularly absorbing. McCarthy controlled the humour with such precision and effortlessness, she had the audience crying with laughter – particularly in By The Sea.
It is often that the characters of Anthony and Johanna get pushed out of the limelight by Todd and Lovett, but in this production their story is right at the heart of the piece. I have never seen a stronger Johanna than Zoë Doano – her control and tone in her higher register is exquisite and she brings so much energy and fun to a character that is so often overlooked. She paired beautifully with Nadim Naaman, who presented a gutsy and masculine version of the young sailor which meant their relationship had real fire. I also loved the self-awareness of the lyrics in Kiss Me as they parodied themselves and their “boy meets girl” cliché. #banter
Kiara Jay, Ian Mowat and Duncan Smith all contributed magnificently to the chorus numbers as well as portraying The Beggar Woman/Pirelli, Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin. So many costume changes!! None of the cast were afraid of getting up close and personal with the audience and this was directed with such intricacy and humour by Bill Buckhurst.
Special mention has to go to Joseph Taylor (Tobias) whose rendition of Not While I’m Around had me in tears. His love and desperation to care for Nellie Lovett had me and the rest of the audience transfixed and his vocals soared and cracked in all the right places. Absolutely gorgeous.
I did miss The Letter, which is one of my favourite numbers, and felt that the cast could have easily mastered the complex writing. I did also lament the omission of City on Fire, though I can see the artistic (and indeed logistical) reasons for leaving it out. The same applied to Sweeney’s chair, but because of the intensity of the actors my reservations about not seeing the murders first hand were quickly swept away. The only real disappointment for me was the Judge’s Johanna… I think I am yet to see a production that fully embraces the content and indeed the physicality needed to convey such a complex and nauseating lyric. Though hats off for including it – nothing irritates me more than when it is just swept aside.
The orchestrations by MD Ben Cox were inventive and interesting, it is always a pleasure to experience an arrangement that has been created specifically for a project and where the orchestrator has clear insight of how to get the best out of the instruments. The extended techniques, particularly when the clarinet replicated the sul pont violin sound, were both written and executed with flair.
So all in all, an absolutely spellbinding production. I was so very jealous of those audience members who were seeing Sweeney Todd for the first time – what a cracking first experience! This production proves entirely that bigger *cough* ENO *cough* is definitely not better, and as Mr S would say: “God is in the detail.”
Photos by Bronwen Sharp
Sweeney Todd 27/03/15 Shaftesbury Ave