Review: Sweeney Todd slays in more ways than one

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If you’ve got any friends in the ANU theatre scene, you’ve likely been hearing about Interhall Productions’ 2016 offering of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street for weeks. Cast and orchestra members have described it as “amazing”, “fantastic”, “incredible” and fittingly, “killer”. At the helm of this lauded production is an all-female creative team: IHP sophomores D’arcy Pierce and Katrina Tang – the former producing, with the latter as musical director – with ANU/Canberra theatre veteran Gowrie Varma directing. Naturally, I settled down to watch last nights show with high expectations.

Steven Sondheim’s “opera” opens with the titular Todd (Spencer Cliff), formerly known as barber Benjamin Barker, returning to London with sailor Anthony (Will Collett) after a 15-year absence, having been transported for life at the dark behest of Judge Turpin (Colin Balog). He soon learns of the death of his wife Lucy and the imprisonment of his daughter Johanna (Amy Jenkins) by the same Judge. In an attempt to draw him out of his misery, Sweeney’s sometime landlady and maker of “The Worst Pies in London”, Mrs Lovett (Georgie Juszczyk), encourages him to take up his tonsorial profession once again. Sweeney’s thirst for revenge and Lovett’s resourcefulness soon leads to a gory and mutually beneficial business partnership, but a mysterious Beggar Woman (Anna Rafferty) augurs disaster as assistant Toby (Sachini Poogoda) inches closer to discovering the dark secret of the bakehouse.

IHP’s set is spare and striking: a staggered design of golden poles, evoking at different times a church organ, the stovepipes of industrial-age factories, the bakehouse and the London skyline. Meanwhile, costume is muted yet eclectic, making reference to burlesque and cartoons as well as slightly abstracted period dress.

Like any Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd has a staggeringly complex score, with offbeat time signatures, multilayered discordant harmonies and complicated rhythms abounding. With a lesser cast this could be disastrous, but the lead actors are uniformly skilled vocalists, handling their songs with ease, while the orchestra swells gloriously around them. Like the leads, the chorus has obviously been selected with utmost attention to vocal proficiency – they nail every harmony, leaving you with goosebumps. All these elements are an absolute credit to musical director Katrina Tang; the attention to detail is obvious, and it’s paid off.

Varma’s past directing and co-directing work in ANU’s theatre scene has often explored the humanity of seemingly inhuman characters, creating a unavoidable sense of heartbreaking empathy in her audiences. This common humanity is keenly felt in Cliff’s Sweeney and Juszczyk’s Lovett: the former driven to bloody revenge through unimaginable loss and trauma, and the latter an opportunist and survivor at all costs, dreaming in vain of a better life. Less well realised than the two antiheroes, perhaps, is Judge Turpin: while we get to see the judge’s inner torment, he’s not menacing enough to achieve Big Bad status and therefore justify his humanising. Shown also is the complexity of certain characters who could easily be rendered simplistically. Both actors and director are to be commended that Jenkins, as Johanna, comes across as rebellious and resilient rather than timid and naive, with Collett’s Anthony never her saviour, but rather a partner and accomplice.

Sweeney is funny where you least expect it. I don’t want to give away all the delightful moments – suffice it for me to say that Jeremy Castillo and Cameron Allan have an absolute romp as the extravagant barber Adolfo Pirelli and Turpin’s henchman Beadle Bamford respectively. Meanwhile, pitch-black humour is also found in the day-to-day operations of Sweeney and Mrs Lovett’s new enterprise. Let’s just say I never thought I’d laugh at the sound of bodies hitting the floor, and I’m still a bit appalled at myself that I did.

The truly spectacular scenes, though, involve the chorus, where incredible vocal harmonies combined with perfectly executed physical theatre and chilling effects will have your spine tingling as you tremble on the edge of your seat. In an ominous sequence, dancing couples’ shadows ripple up across the set, towering above the scene as Sweeney’s wife is torn from him. Another tableau in a mental asylum deeply unsettles, as clustered chorus members stare out into the audience with listless eyes, too far gone to seek respite from the hell they live in.

As with most productions, there were some opening night technical missteps: high notes occasionally sound strained, a side-effect of frequent rehearsal that’s difficult to avoid, while imbalances between pit and vocal microphones sometimes obscured important narrative in the lyrics. All in all, these are minor distractions, and don’t detract from the spectacle of the piece. Get yourself a ticket to IHP’s Sweeney Todd, before it cleans up at the CAT Awards next February and you’re left kicking yourself. I’ll bet you one of the best pies in London that, like I did, you’ll leave saying “God, That’s Good!”