From the opening crunch of clashing organ chords, to melodies that keep slipping and sliding into dissonance – not quite able to hold their key, conjuring the twisted world the musical is set in – Sweeney Todd has a hold over me. It’s satisfyingly sickening, but so often performed that it seems as if there is little more to eke out of it. Derek Anderson’s claustrophobic production is a brilliant rebuttal to that idea.
When I last saw Sweeney Todd it was the Ball/Staunton one and I was in the back row of the upper circle. With restricted view. They sang well, it was a flashy production but otherwise underwhelming. Twickenham Theatre have gone for the exact opposite: small scale, intimate, frightening. Seeing the beads of sweat on Sweeney’s face, globs of blood and shaving foam flecking the audience and hearing the perfect voices of the cast so closely is an exhilarating experience. The production plays down the comedy and focuses on character rather than caricature.
Todd and Lovett are at odds as characters, a strange contrast between horror and humour. Lovett is a comic role, but Sarah Ingram doesn’t overplay it at all. She brings great depth and intricate detail to the part – her wry smile suddenly drooping into a faraway stare, all levity evaporated, and her Estuary accent subtly delivered. That detail is important in such a small space, because the audience can see every facial tweak. Ingram makes the humour part of her character, rather than just part of the songs, and does something that doesn’t happen often in Sondheim: she takes the songs slowly. Worst Pies In London is delivered at a really calm pace so that it’s possible to hear every word, and even with the usually rushed interjections and physical moments it doesn’t plod – Ingram completely claims it as her own. Her voice is excellent, she is always aware of her desperately creepy crush on Todd and takes every opportunity to throw a lustful glance or a stray grope his way.
David Bedella as Sweeney has a menacing growl and a mostly impassive expression – again, no ham here, instead great acting and great singing. Genevieve Kingsford’s rendition of Green Finch and Linnet Bird is sweet, moving and gets across the anguish of being caged, finely balanced between restraint and power.
It’s a funny musical at many points, but that humour is set against a gruesome, black, macabre. Judge Turpin’s Mea Culpa song is so twisted – flagellating himself with a leather whip as Mark Mckerracher’s stocky form, kneeling at a prie-deu, wheezes and pants and lusts after the (very) young Johanna. The moment when Todd and Lovett decide that cannibalism is an ‘eminently practical and yet appropriate’ course of action is, of course, set to stunning lyrics but the notion – the brazen commitment to cannibalism – is so, so dark. And all that chill and thrill is happening a metre or two away.
Sweeney usually needs a two or three tiered stage, a mechanical chair, plenty of sets to mark the different scenes – bakehouse, pie shop, barber parlour, market, judge’s house, Fogg’s asylum. Derek Anderson’s production takes place on one thrust stage, maybe 5 or 6 metres long and wide. It’s such a careful, thoughtful use of the small space – each scene imaginatively flowing from one into the next. Pipes snake across the ceiling, everything is dripping with rust and blood and grime: a great, grim Gothic design. The audience surrounds the cast at first, until gradually the performers start to surround us and fill the room from every angle with a multitude of voices. The production builds to a squirting, pulsing, bloody second half.
This little above-pub production is such a convincing argument that Sweeney, or Sondheim in general, although it often gets it, doesn’t need a huge stage, a huge budget, a huge cast. Instead it needs imagination. Like compartments in the stage that pop up into tables and conceal things that need concealing. Like using only one small space instead of big complex sets. Like focus on perfection rather than ostentation. Perhaps above all, though, it needs a bloody good cast. And this Sweeney definitely has that. Twickenham Theatre have got off to a great start, flaunting skill and imagination with apparent ease: how great to see a new theatre do something really damn well.