Union Theatre’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a musical thriller with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Sweeney Todd – Christopher Howell
Mrs Lovett – Emma Francis
Judge Turpin – Stephen Rashbrook
Tobias – Adam Ellis
Anthony Hope – Leon Kay
Johanna – Katie Stokes
Pirelli – David Kristopher-Brown
Beadle Bamford – Nigel Pilkington
Beggar Woman – Róisin Sullivan
Birdseller – Matthew Baker
Fogg – Michael Burgen
Ensemble – Ross Aldred, Hannah Bingham, Paul Callen, Danielle Fenemore, Kimberley Ensor & Michelle Williamson

Christopher Mundy – Musical Director & Keyboard
Andrew Swift – Organ & Second Keyboard

Sasha Regan – Director & Executive Producer
Poppy Ben-David – Producer
Sally Brooks – Choreographer
Sophie Mosberger – Set Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer & Assistant Director
Giles Faulkner – Assistant Director
Alex Weatherall – Musical Arranger
Elizabeth Mansfield – Lighting Operator & Stage Manager

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 November, 2008
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

From being relatively non-commercial in 1980 (558 performances in New York, 157 in London) “Sweeney Todd” appears to have become Stephen Sondheim’s most popular show and it is constantly being revived, so that it has, in the words of the prophet (George Axelrod) gone from being a flop to a classic without ever passing through success. That is not strictly true but until directors such as Christopher Bond (who adapted the original story for the stage) in his Half Moon production, and Declan Donnellan at the National Theatre realised that Sondheim’s musical could be staged as a chamber work rather than as a big, American musical, the piece resolutely failed to work at the box office.

Since then, however, opera companies such as Holland Park, Opera North and The Royal Opera have added it to their repertoire, and the Royal Festival Hall did a semi-staged version with Bryn Terfel and Maria Friedman. Many fringe theatres have also had a go and made a real success of it. And, goddammit, there is even a film version by Tim Burton, but the less said about that the better.

“Sweeney Todd” is not exactly what you expect when you think of an American musical. Instead you might recall “West Side Story”, “South Pacific”, “Oklahoma!” or “Show Boat”, works that integrate book, music, lyrics and dance. Although “Sweeney Todd” follows in the tradition of the Great American Musical, it’s a descendant that breaks all the rules. It opens without an overture and goes straight into a chorus of “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”. It begins in the dark and concludes the same way. It is black comedy of the grimmest nature and what wit there is comes from the grave. Traditionally, the Great American Musical was based on light comedy, hence the genre of musical comedy. “Sweeney Todd” is, as Sondheim named it, a “musical thriller”, the equivalent of turning Hitchcock’s “Psycho” into a musical.

Its origins are not even American, for “Sweeney Todd” is based on a story found in one of the Victorian ‘penny-dreadful’ publications that were popular in the late-nineteenth-century. Actor Todd Slaughter toured his version of the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and made a film of it in 1936. When Christopher Bond was an actor at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, he couldn’t find a script of the play, so wrote one himself, drawing on such sources as Alexandre Dumas, Jacobean drama, Shakespeare and the Bible, and mixing it up with a dash of Cockney slang. His is the version Sondheim saw at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1973 while he was in London for a staging of “Gypsy”.

He converted the tale into a magnificent thriller in a way that no British writer of musicals could ever have achieved. You can’t see Sandy Wilson or Julian Slade tackling such a distasteful subject as Sweeney Todd and when Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken questionable subjects for musicals, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Woman in White”, they bear no comparison and have nowhere near the theatrical frisson an audience gets from “Sweeney Todd”. In short, Sondheim has written the best British musical drama in “Sweeney Todd”, just as American Alan Jay Lerner and the Austrian-American Frederick Loewe wrote the best British musical comedy, “My Fair Lady”.

No slouch when it comes to staging difficult musicals, Sasha Regan at the tiny Union Theatre near Waterloo has added “Sweeney Todd” to her list of successful Broadway revivals. During the decade of the Union’s existence she has staged “Cabaret”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Pajama Game” and all-male versions of “HMS Pinafore” and “The Mikado”. Every single production has been a treat; actually, Regan has produced better versions of these shows than anybody else in living memory. They seem to come alive at the Union whereas shows such as “Annie Get Your Gun” and “The Pajama Game” have in recent years died on their feet elsewhere. She has managed to make even Gilbert & Sullivan seem fresh-minted.

Regan is both director and executive producer on “Sweeney Todd” and within a small space under a railway arch in Southwark she is working miracles. The show is played out simply and effectively with the chorus moving its way in and out the audience while the main action is staged in a centre space for Mrs Lovett’s pie shop with a raised platform representing Sweeney’s upstairs barbershop. It is the chorus-work that is the most chilling thing about Sondheim’s thriller and here it works exceptionally well. The lack of such in the recent film version drains it almost entirely of any menace.

As is usual Regan has a mainly young cast geared to making the musical form acceptable and credible. Christopher Howell has the necessary presence for Sweeney, a man obsessed by his seeking revenge for the way his family was destroyed while he was sent to Australia on a trumped-up charge by Judge Turpin (Stephen Rashbook) who in his way is even more despicable than Todd, in the way he keeps his ward Johanna under lock and key and finally commits her to an asylum when Todd’s seafaring friend Anthony falls in love with the girl.

It’s not totally grim, however, because his partner-in-crime, Nellie Lovett, finds a way of making a success of both Todd’s barbershop and her failing pie emporium. Upstairs Todd gives his customers the closest shave of their lives and then dispatches them downstairs to be ground-up and popped into Nellie’s pies. It’s an appalling thought but Sondheim makes light of it in the comic exchanges between Todd and Lovett. The numbers ‘The worst pies in London’ and ‘A little priest’ bring the house down by providing comic relief in this otherwise grisly grand guignol. We almost feel sorry for their plight.

Emma Francis’s Mrs Lovett is more glamorous than usual. Ever since Angela Lansbury created the role in the original Broadway production, Nellie has been a caricature with rouged cheeks and pigtails, a pantomime figure of fun. However, Francis gets to the heart of the part and makes this silly woman at times all too real. Adam Ellis as Tobias, Nellie’s little helper in the pie shop, has one of the best ballads in the show (although the whole score is a masterpiece) in ‘Not while I’m around’ which is very moving in the simplicity of its sentiments. Leon Kay is strong as Anthony although his very Northern accent seems a bit unsettling. Katie Stokes sings prettily as Johanna and there is excellent support from Róisin Sullivan as the Beggar Woman, David Kristopher-Brown as Pirelli and Nigel Pilkington as Beadle Bamford.

Regan and choreographer Sally Brooks ensure that the complete space is used to its fullest extent, while Sophie Mosberger’s designs cope with the simplest of effects for the slashing of the customers’ throats and the roar of the big oven in the cookhouse. My only cavil is the positioning of the piano and its persistent sound that at times drowns out the lyrics. It’s probably an acoustic thing, but the production is so good that it almost erases memories of that very indifferent movie version. Don’t miss!

  • Sweeney Todd is at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 0LX until Saturday 6 December 2008
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets £15 (Tuesday £10): 020 7261 9876.

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