In this wonderfully chilling production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, we see the titular character arrive in Georgian London, beholden to Anthony Hope, who has rescued him at sea. We learn that Todd is in fact an alias for the former barber Benjamin Barker.
A malevolent judge once lusted after Barker’s wife, and banished the barber to Australia on false charges. Barker learns the judge has subsequently adopted his daughter. Will the Demon Barber be reunited with his family? Will he find vengeance? He comes into possession of his sterling silver razors and prepares to give some very close shaves…
The character ‘Sweeney Todd’ has a long history, first appearing in Victorian ‘Penny dreadfuls’ or serialized tales that each cost a penny. The character was a hit from the outset, with a play being produced before the original series had been completed. Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) reportedly based this musical on Christopher Bond’s 1973 melodrama of the same name.
Sweeney Todd first opened on Broadway in 1979, and in the West End in 1980. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and also the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Since then it has seen numerous productions around the world, including many revivals in New York and London.
Anthony Warlow, of course, is stunning in this role. His unflinching posture sets him apart. He’s not asking for your approval, he’s demonstrating how it’s done. This show is a paean to the sublime, or the thrill of pleasure we sometimes get from the terrifying.
The character of Todd is the embodiment of the anti-hero. Perhaps his charm arises from his racy fatalism, or his resignation to his own dark character. Perhaps it’s his honesty. Warlow strides the stage, comically laconic and phlegmatic.
Gina Riley (Mrs. Lovett) drew enormous applause from the crowd. If you’ve come to see Kimmy you won’t be disappointed: it goes without saying that she is extremely funny. Director Theresa Borg doesn’t place a focus on the romantic chemistry between the leads; rather this very comic Mrs. Lovett may be drawn to the absurd nature of Todd’s pursuits; pursuits that don’t quite make sense. In the absurd she finds the humour, and the affection.
Jonathan Hickey, as Tobias Ragg, delivered a heart warming rendition of Not While I’m Around; this may have contributed to his particularly strong ovation at the curtain. Daniel Sumegi is terrifying as Judge Turpin; he captured wonderfully that character’s feigned innocence and hypocrisy.
Set design (Charlotte Lane) also nods to the sublime, or the philosophy that underpinned much of the Romantic and Gothic traditions. Burke noted that sublime colours include deep purples, browns, and blacks. These colours dominate the set, setting the mood for this spooky tale of revenge.
On opening night there were some technical issues with the character’s microphones. There were also some dropped lines (that I believe were very amusingly called out from the orchestra pit). No doubt these issues will evaporate as the run proceeds.
If you are drawn to tales of old England, the Gothic, the Romantic, or the thriller genre then you won’t want to miss this show. It’s a remount that will serve the legions of fans that remain fascinated with this macabre tale forty years after its debut.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney, New South Wales
Performance: Thursday 13 June 2019 – 7.30pm
Sweeney Todd will also be presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: 20 – 23 June 2019. For more information, visit: www.lifelikecompany.com for details.
Image: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – photo by Ben Fon
Review: Oliver Wakelin