CUTTING EDGE: Jason Ralph in character as Sweeney Todd.

JOHANNESBURG theatre performer and multi-award winner and nominee, Jason Ralph, has spent the past three weeks in Durban getting into the skin of the “demon barber”, Sweeney Todd of the famous international musical by the same name.

The musical thriller, by Stephen Sondheim, is brought to local stage by Kickstart Theatre Productions. It tells the outlandish tale of urban legend, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who famously murdered his clients in his barber’s chair, where after his wacky neighbour, and partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, turned them into meat pies.

Kickstart’s Sweeney Todd stars Ralph in the title role, and Charon Williams-Ros as Mrs Lovett.

Others in the cast include Lyle Buxton, Sanli Jooste, Bryan Hiles, Richard Salmon, Danilo Antonelli, Liesl Coppin and Darren King.

With the production opening on Friday, Tonight caught up with Ralph (Phantom of the Opera; Not The Midnight Mass; Exits and Entrances) to chat about his experience working on Sweeney Todd.

“Sweeney will definitely be a role that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s been a very special process. It’s a role that, as an actor, is fantastic to be able to sink your teeth into. It’s very meaty and it’s a wonderful experience so far,” he said.

Ralph explained that while on the surface Sweeney Todd may seem quite dark and gloomy, it is actually quite balanced.

“With Sweeney, people may look at the story and think he’s a murderer. But he’s coming from a place of extreme pain, he’s damaged goods… I think as an actor whatever role you play you have to be able to tap into the character and what they are going through. He had a wife and a child and he was violently ripped out of the situation and sent off to prison for 15 years and while there I think what kept him going was coming back to his family. But he comes back and his wife has poisoned herself and his child is being kept under safeguard by the tyrant of a judge who sent him away.

“So I certainly do empathise. It is an extreme situation... He murders his clients with the sole intention of eventually getting to the people who did this to him, and murdering them. But at the end of the day he is navigating his way through pain and wanting to take justice into his own hands and I don’t think there’s anybody on this planet that can’t relate to coming from a place of pain and heartache,” said Ralph.

While it all sounds quite heavy, Ralph said the issues are raised, through a balancing act of humour and music.

“The show is certainly not dark and gloomy, from beginning to end; I think it’s peppered with both. There’s a lot of pathos in this production. Obviously a lot of darkness, it’s the reality of the situation. But there’s also a lot of humour and Sondheim is brilliant with that and his music. It’s certainly not one-dimensional with doom and gloom, there’s a lot of humour, especially from my partner in crime, Mrs Lovett.

“It’s a wonderful character and Charon really has tapped into the humour of Mrs Lovett. I am having such a fun time with Charon. The amazing thing about working with Kickstart Productions, and this ties in with (director) Steven Stead is that it’s been a very organic process. I’d never met any of the cast before and I’ve very comfortable. It’s a very safe space we work in,” he added.

Commenting further on Stead, Ralph described him as “an actor’s director”: “It makes a monumental difference when you are working with a director who has performed before and comes from the viewpoint of an actor. Steven has created a very safe space for me in my time with Sweeney, he’s given me the room to explore. He is patient and has a very good eye for what works. From the word go I felt we are both on the same page.”

And in general, Ralph said this is one production no audience wants to miss: “I really hope this production gets supported. It’s a wonderful piece of theatre. If you have any kind of love for the theatre, if you love the magic of theatre and if you are the kind of person who wants to go to a theatre and leave your day behind and go along with someone else’s story and get absorbed in that story, then this is certainly the show to come and watch.”

• Directed by Steven Stead, with set designs by Greg King. The shows runs from Friday to August 24. Book at Computicket.