Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd isn’t generally for the faint of heart. A standard production is bloody, bellicose, and terrifically dark.
See it at an unusually close range, however, and Sweeney Todd is uniquely terrifying. It’s also especially exciting. Fortunately, that rare perspective is afforded audiences at Tooting Arts Club’s no-holds-barred production of the 1979 musical thriller.
To make it possible, the Barrow Street Theatre has been transformed into Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, an antiquated space—designed by Simon Kenny—where Mrs. Lovett sells the “worst pies in London,” complete with a counter, a large menu board and a collection of baking instruments. This set is modeled on the business of the same name, which happens to be London’s oldest pie shop. When this production was first mounted in 2014, it was in the actual shop at 3 Selkirk Road Tooting, London. Since then, it’s moved to London’s West End, and now, New York City.
While some of the audience sits further back from the action at both the ground and balcony level, a couple dozen lucky spectators are seated mere feet away, situated like diners at long, horizontal tables.
With guidance from director Bill Buckhurst, the cast seems to relish in this proximity. Todd (Jeremy Secomb) in particular, makes full use of the opportunity to thrust his razors in the direction of unsuspecting theatergoers, or surprise them, on one occasion, by barking his lines mere inches from an individual’s face. These tables are also mounted, at times, by the actors. At one point, they perform a wonderful choreography with forks and knives—courtesy of Georgina Lamb— while seated at their end.
Sweeney Todd, of course, is one of Sondheim’s masterpieces, and it’s a complex, challenging score. Here, the music is provided by just three instruments—a piano (courtesy of Matt Aument), a violin (Tomoko Akaboshi) and a clarinet (Michael Favreau). It’s all that’s needed. The sparse orchestration may in fact better allow the voices of the cast to carry through.
And what a cast. As Sweeney, Jeremy Secomb eschews the sultry, slow burn that Johnny Depp took to the character in Tim Burton’s film adaptation. He opts, instead, for a naked, wild rage. When he is not letting this violence express itself fully, his fury is plainly visible just barely below the surface, threatening, at times, to pop right out of his hugely expressive eyeballs. Siobhan McCarthy’s Mrs. Lovett is first-rate— as comic and tragically sympathetic as Patti LuPone in the 2005 Broadway production. Betsy Morgan, playing both the beggar woman and the barber Adolfo Pirelli moves seamlessly between misery and flamboyance. If you haven’t seen the role played by a woman before, you’re in for a treat.
Though the space for performing is, ultimately, quite small—confined, mostly, to a narrow alley and a staircase— it proves remarkably pliable. It transforms, with the smart and subtle lighting design by Amy Mae, into a barber shop, an insane asylum, and a variety of other environments. For much of the play, the primary lighting comes from candles, which creates a beautiful and eery ambiance.
Audiences who don’t like being the possible target of a gag or a blade might want to avoid sitting at the tables. But for those who like their theater in-your-face and aggressive, I recommend getting a seat right in the center of things, where the violence and the talent is most palpable. You’ll be at the edge of your seat.