Cast excels in stirring ‘Sweeney Todd’
SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. Music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim. From the adaptation by Christopher Bond. Musical Director Rowan Bakker. Direction and musical staging Stephen Stead, with Jonathan Roxmouth, Charon Williams-Ros, Michael Richard, Sanli Jooste, Cameron Botha, Adam Pelkowitz, Germandt Geldenhuys, Jaco van Rensburg, Anne-Marie Clulow, Luciano Zuppa, Pauline du Plessis, Earl Gregory, Weslee Swain Lauder, Claire Simons, Megan Rigby and Candice van Litsenborgh. Set design by Greg King. At Theatre on the Bay until April 9. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
THESE days the public’s obsession with serial murderers is satisfied by television series such as Dexter, but our curiosity pre-dates the digital portrayal of repeat offenders. As early as 1846 a London publisher, Edward Lloyd gave readers their weekly dose of grisly tales with his penny dreadful The People’s Periodical and Family Library. The 18 weekly instalments of the String of Pearls marked the literary debut of Sweeney Todd.
Such was Lloyd’s marketing acumen that he spread the rumour that this gory tale of cannibalistic culinary tendencies was a work of non-fiction. Despite not being grounded in fact the fictional character of the murderous barber caught the imagination of sufficient writers to see it adapted for film in 1936 and as a play by Christopher Bond in 1973. It is this adaptation that Sondheim used for his version which cast the barber as something of an anti-hero and despite his evil deeds one cannot help but feel a certain sympathy for his character.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are as catchy and stirring as any of his other memorable creations and the influence of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II (Oklahoma, Showboat and The Sound of Music) is evident in the strength of the story in this musical adaptation. Hammerstein is often credited with bringing musical theatre to maturity with his strong emphasis on the story, a trait that Sondheim has continued.
This version feels more akin to a staged version of the movie than an adaptation of the austere production first seen on London stages in 1980. This far more elaborate staging draws you in even before the actors take to the stage. The set, although a large portion of it remains static, still transforms during the production to reveal both the scenes of the multiple crimes; the barber shop, the disposal unit; the pie shop, a mental asylum and a living room -not to mention the streets of London. The dank and dingy atmosphere of cobbled streets and abysmal living conditions are recreated with accuracy. The devilishly quick construction and subsequent dismantling of a barber’s barrow and the dining area of the pie shop are remarkable. The basic premise of the story is that of a revenge fuelled barber whose bloody rampage provides the fillings for his landlady’s pastries. Of course like any fine musical there is a love story and in this instance more than one.
We are reminded of Todd’s love for his wife who fell prey to the judge while simultaneously watching the young sailor, Anthony Hope (Cameron Botha) pursue the Judge’s ward and potential victim, Johanna (Sanli Jooste). Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) has a love story all of her own and whether the course of either love runs true is only revealed in the final scene of the play. Both the sailor and the object of his affection are played with a naivete which provide a pleasant counterpoint to the other leadroles.
A canny and clever set with a tried and tested script and score is nothing without an excellent cast and this cast excels. Audiences will be familiar with Roxmouth’s Tony from West Side Story (another Sondheim script), Marvin Hamlisch in I’m Playing Your Song and his various Stage by Stage performances. Don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize him immediately on stage, so drastic is his visual transformation. It’s not only his physical appearance which has been modified substantially but his voice seems to have a deeper, darker resonance, perfect for the spine-chilling portrayal of the murderous barber. Despite his sadistic traits we are shown glimpses of the motivation for his vengeful cats of retribution.
The denouement of the production is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions and shows him to be a victim of his own vengeful deeds. For those who haven’t watched the movie or read the book I shan’t reveal the finer details. Perhaps the chorus of ghosts describes him best. “His voice was soft, his manner mild. He seldom laughed but he often smiled, he’d seen how civilized men behave. He never forgot and he never forgave.” Gaining sympathy from the audience while playing such a murderous villain is no easy feat, but as with the aforementioned television series, Dexter there are moments when one silently cheers the retributive nature of his vengeful acts.
Equally well cast is Charon Williams-Ros in the role of Nellie Lovett. She is a temptress and conspirator who has some of the finest solo numbers. Her vocal range combined with her acting ability make Lovett larger than life and in addition to making pies she is responsible for some truly magical musical moments on stage.
Her duets with Roxmouth in particular are worth the ticket price as she treads just the right balance between dark humour and horror-fest gore. Their very clever exposition of the contents of the pies includes such memorable lines as “Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps, but not as bland as curate, either” and the culinary merits of various professions including that of lawyers and poets is performed with a particularly dark undertone responsible for much guilty laughter.
Michael Richard’s Judge Turpin is a truly odious character and an embodiment of the notion that there are sins more devastating and vile than murder. As the sheer depravity of his character is revealed I was reminded of Jimmy Savile, a publicly upstanding individual with a very unsavoury private life. Richard carries the role with a regal disdain and contempt for everyone he encounters. Even his faithful aide Beadle Bamford ( Adam Pelkowitz) is not immune to his ridicule.
This is one of the largest casts I have seen on the stage at this theatre and each one of the ensemble perform their many roles, whether they be ordinary London citizens or crazed inmates of the asylum with skill. Their resounding rendition of some of the bigger numbers belies the size of the theatre. The ghoulish aspect of the production is highlighted by the appearance of the ensemble of ghosts, a type of Greek chorus who provide links to the narrative As they appear at the front of the stage with wickedly clever lighting (designed by Tina Le Roux) their pale pallor and extreme make-up make for a frightening tableaux.
The dark affair is not without humour and the introduction of the ‘Italian” barber Pirelli a purveyor of hair oil and privy to some of Todd’s past history is a comedic musical vignette in which Germani Geldenhuys plays every comedic nuance.
This lurid and visually extravagant production is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but beneath the gore and rousing music lies a cautionary tale of the cost of revenge. Biting through the tender pastry of a pie without a shiver will be will be impossible afterwards and you may choose your barber with slightly more caution in the future.
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