Musical Review

Sondheim & Wheeler Sweeney Todd  The Bridewell, London, June 2000 (PGW & AW)


No new musical theatre piece in recent years has proved to have so seminal an influence as Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, to a book by Hugh Wheeler, in which the conventional musical was transformed through its unprecedented musical continuity. With 80% music and only c.20% spoken words, it challenged in popular theatre the conventions of the presumed higher and elitist art form, grand opera.

Sweeney Todd has had numerous productions and I have seen four of them; familiarity breeds admiration for a perfectly crafted masterpiece, which can stand comparison with the greatest operas. The London premiere had Denis Quilley as the sinister Todd, the legendary barber and serial murderer (our doctors were formerly barber-surgeons!) not to be deflected from the pursuit of vengeance for wrongful suffering at the hands of a corrupt and venial judge. Sheila Hancock captivated all who saw her, vivacious as his fortuitous partner, Mrs Lovett, purveyor of meat pies, colluding zestfully with delight at how her business prospered with his assistance, and never a qualm or twinge of conscience. There was a scary, darker American production on video, another revival more recently at the National Theatre in London, and now it can be enjoyed, and pondered, in the most innovative production of all, an intimate, small-scale promenade show at The Bridewell, nearby Fleet Street itself, where the notorious barber practised his lucrative trade.

The Bridewell has become London's home for intelligent, thought provoking presentation of intelligent musicals, novelties and revivals, and it housed the most successful of the several productions of The Beggar's Opera recently reviewed by S&H [October 1999, April & June 2000].

The musical director, Stuart Pedlar, who had conducted the London premiere, has always regarded Sweeney Todd as an intimate domestic tale, and he relished the opportunity to present it on a smaller scale. The words (all of them important) are mostly audible - key phrases are repeated and brought back again and again - but inevitably some are lost when backs are turned towards you, inevitable for theatre in the round. The score is played on for piano and keyboards by Pedlar and his assistant David Laugharne, and it delivers a punch.

The one-time Edwardian swimming-pool was stripped to its bare walls and used from end to end and top to bottom. Audiences sit on benches or stand in the centre until particular spaces are needed, when the actors imperiously part them to make way, as did Moses for the Israelites to cross the Red Sea. Stages at one end serve for Mrs Lovett's bakehouse and pie-shop, with her spare room upstairs transformed so conveniently into the barber-shop, at the other for the residence of the villainous Judge, where the young heroine is confined (later an asylum) until rescued by her intrepid suitor. At the height of the enterprise's heyday, singing actors and members of the audience sit together to enjoy the renowned meat pies!

The show works by delaying the satisfaction of expectations. The Judge, sitting in the fateful barbers' chair, is reprieved during the first act by an interruption in the nick of time; the jolly villains escape inevitable nemesis until the end, but all is righted finally with nearly as many corpses as litter the stage at the conclusion of Hamlet.

Michael McLean & Diane Pilkington are cast strongly as the villainous couple, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his paramour. They are well supported by a strong team; Sophie Millett is the young heroine, unaware of her parentage, rescued from malign fate by Joshua Hope, who had entered the scene in all innocence; Mark Inscoe and Richard Winch are the representatives of corrupt officialdom; all of them sing and play their parts to excellent effect.

It is worth considering the appeal of Sweeney Todd at a deeper level, so over now to Alexa Woolf!

Peter Grahame Woolf

The luckless barber of Fleet Street.

The description of Sweeney Todd as a musical thriller gives only a partial explanation of this work's power to grip an audience.

It deals with powerlessness, rape, loss, obsession, revenge and murder, and connects with anti-authoritarian sentiments on a wide base. The story can be traced back to the first half of the 19th century, a time of social dislocation, rapid urbanisation, oppression and lawlessness. Sweeney Todd can be seen as an urban folk tale, with core elements which transcend specifics of time and location. Like many such tales it articulates the darker aspects of humanity in symbolic form.

The rape of Sweeney's beloved wife by a licentious and socially superior judge provides the starting point. The action revolves around an unbalanced power-relationship. An ordinary person's right to the peaceful pursuit of happiness is thwarted, and even the most priced possession (wife) can be expropriated. Most of the audience would empathise with the victim(s). Anti-authoritarian sentiments are fuelled further by the judge's abuse of power in despatching Sweeney to a penal colony on a trumped-up charge, to leave covetous authority in possession of the field. The resultant feelings of revenge are normal.

However, and as ever, of great social and political importance is the question how far can revenge be taken before it, in turn, becomes an unmanageable problem. Dastardly thoughts and deeds cannot be presented as simple 'naked' events. There is a need to mythologise them and to provide a guiding line for a moral evaluation.

The story, at first, appears to sanction revenge. Sweeney teams up with happy-go-lucky Mrs. Lovett. We have thus a pair, a double character, which creates the basis for a splitting off and externalising of Sweeney's inner workings. Through Mrs. Lovett, he accepts the progression from murderous fantasies and obsessions to mass murder as sensible and normal. Mrs. Lovett makes visible and acceptable his anti-social, amoral and immoral rationalisations.

In order to preserve the ideal of a moral-social equilibrium, a come-uppance is needed. The audience's judgement is subtly directed towards a condemnation of revenge. When Sweeney inadvertently kills what he loves most, his wife, he stands back and remorse takes hold. He condemns his own action by despatching his externalised self, Mrs. Lovett, into the oven.

Tobias, the simple minded, faithful and steadfast servant becomes the catalyst for a resolution and clear moral guidance. By implication and extension, even the dullest among the audience ought to get the point too that Sweeney Todd's vengeful murders must be condemned and, lest he infect other members of the social body with ideas of acting out revenge, he needs to be disposed of like a rotten apple. Thus a return to normality is made possible through the rejection of immoral excess. The extermination of evil through the killing of Sweeney Todd, who is larger than life and metaphorical, is made into a logical and social necessity. Revenge, however seemingly justified, cannot be given free reign.

Stephen Sondheim has created with his music and lyrics a masterpiece in sound and text, through his ability to delve into social and psychological depths, and to extract essences which can be mythologised. Sweeney Todd is both highly complex and direct to the point. Like a gruesome fairy tale it is likely to engage people's imagination for a long time to come. {See also review of Sondheim's Into the Woods, S&H May 2000].

Alexa Woolf

Sweeney Todd runs at The Bridewell until Saturday 15 July, so there is still time to catch it. PGW.


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