In October 2014, Tooting Arts Club – a producing company which makes work for and in south-London’s otherwise theatreless Tooting – hit upon an audacious form of site-specific theatre, staging Sondheim and Wheeler’s 1979 masterwork Sweeney Todd in an operational pie shop (review here). Pre-show pies were baked and interval drinks were served in a barber’s shop across the street. The only problem was capacity: the eatery could seat just 32 people a night at its four tables.
Now they’ve pulled off something even bolder (if inevitably less authentic). With West End enhancement money that’s taken the budget from £30,000 to £158,000 – and Cameron Mackintosh as a generous landlord – they’ve seemingly lifted that pie shop in all its minute detail and plonked it down in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue.
Having been to the Tooting original, I was simply gobsmacked to feel like I was walking into a museum-worthy recreation of it (in fact, structural changes to the original premises mean the West End staging preserves a version of the shop that no longer exists). The new location has, however, subtly meant that the seating capacity has been more than doubled (to 69) without sacrificing any of the production’s simultaneously thrilling and challenging immediacy.
So though the setting is now strictly speaking faux, there’s nothing fake at all about its astonishing power to insinuate and implicate its audience in the mass-murder terrors that unfold here. There’s a deadly – in every sense – logic to the remorseless storytelling. Sweeney Todd is overcome by a psychotic desire to wreak revenge upon anyone and everyone. As the scarily dead-eyed Jeremy Secomb sings the great Epiphany, he confronts one after another of us directly: “Not one man, no, nor 10 men / Nor a hundred can assuage me / I will have you!”
I have never felt a bigger chill.
Elsewhere, Siobhan McCarthy’s bustling, forever practical Mrs Lovett has absolutely no conscience, imagining a future with Sweeney living by the sea together, she contemplates welcoming, “the odd paying guest from the weekend trippers / With a nice sunny suite for the guests to rest in / Now and then, you could do a guest in.”
Both Secomb and McCarthy chill the soul in different ways. They are joined by just six other actors to populate the rest of the story, but Bill Buckhurst’s production pulls off the amazing feat of never making it feel (still less sound) threadbare. These are full-blooded performances in every sense, with compellingly brilliant work from Ian Mowat as the Beadle, Duncan Smith as Judge Turpin, Joseph Taylor as Tobias, Nadim Naaman as Anthony and Kira Jay magnificently doubling as the Beggar Woman and Pirelli. All are holdovers from Tooting; the one bright newcomer to the company is Zoe Doano, bringing a radiant, soaring soprano to Johanna.
The company is accompanied and completed by a superb trio of musicians, with rumbling piano underscoring from Benjamin Cox, gnawing strings from Petru Cotarcea, and clarinet from Rachel Ridout.
Dates: March 12 to May 30. PN: March 21