Stephen Sondheim once dubbed his macabre musical masterpiece Sweeney Todd as his love letter to London, and now London repays the compliment, sending a miniature but powerful version of the show back to New York, where it premiered in 1979.
That was then in one of Broadway’s largest theatres, the Uris (now the Gershwin); but here Bill Buckhurst’s riveting, immersive production is playing in a slightly expanded recreation of the real-life Tooting pie shop in which it originated in 2014. In its original south London incarnation, it played to audiences of just 32, now it seats four times that number – though that’s still just 130 per performance.
That makes it both the most intimate production of the show I’ve ever seen and also one of the most confrontational and powerful. It’s not just in-your-face theatre, but also sometimes in-your-lap. Pirelli’s miracle elixir is rubbed into the scalps of bald men in the audience (including myself), but there are more chilling moments. Sweeney barks to an audience member seated at one of the long dining tables – “Move!” – and acts of extreme violence happen right in front of you.
This implicates the audience directly in the tortuous vision. This is after all a story in which a man becomes the possessed avenger for the wrongs perpetrated upon him. “We all deserve to die,” he roars in the immense Epiphany – and that includes the audience. Jeremy Secomb’s performance is chilling and intense, unrelenting in its severity and savagery.
Sondheim’s show is also darkly funny and Buckhurst doesn’t stint on this, with Siobhan McCarthy embodying Mrs Lovett’s practical amorality with hilarious spirit. She and Secomb, along with Joseph Taylor’s tenderly boyish Tobias and Duncan Smith’s severe Judge Turpin, all reprise their performances from Tooting; they are newly joined by a spirited American company of four other outstanding actors, including Alex Finke as Sweeney’s sweet-voiced daughter Johanna, Matt Doyle as Anthony Hope who falls in love with her and Brad Oscar as the venal Beadle Bamford.