Sweeney Todd at the Twickenham
Who hasn’t heard of Sweeney Todd, the devastatingly dark character who first appeared in the Victorian penny blood The String of Pearls in 1946? Since then, there have been numerous adaptations, including a Tony award-winning Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim in 1976 and a more recent film adaptation by Tim Burton. An intimate space in the leafy south London suburb that holds no more than 100, the Twickenham Theatre is the latest venue to revive Sondheim’s musical adaptation; the actors are so close you could almost feel their breath as they belt out the ingenious musical score.
Rachel Stone’s set of dingy floorboards, a depressed ceiling and sinister grills educe the sleaze and sordidness that twisted through every London street in Victorian England. Add some perfectly timed dry smoke, and you are reminded of smog that wraps itself thickly around corners, obscuring dimly lit alleyways. The costumes are authentic and the props minimal but enough: two stools, a birdcage, shiny barber scalpels and, in the second act, Sweeney Todd’s eerie-levered barber chair, hinged on a track that back-pedals through two flip doors.
David Bedella plays a tormented, warped Sweeney Todd, perverted by thoughts of corruption, ridden with grief and anger as he is tormented by the death of his wife and absence of daughter Johanna. And despite the horror of the acts he commits, tossing out one dead body after another, Bedella reveals how the man’s engulfing rage and desire for revenge propels him on an irreversible journey into madness, somehow inducing empathy with the character, though not his deeds. Coupled with the brash, shrewd Mrs Lovett (Sarah Ingram), we see how she spurs him on, twisting his mind to the horrors they carry out together. Ingram is brilliant as Lovett: witty yet serious, tender yet crude, she creates a well-rounded character bound by love and driven by money.
Mark McKerracher is a brutal and repugnant Judge, crippled by sexual perversion that torments his conscience and finally provokes him to make his young ward, Johanna, his wife. The self-flagellating scene to Johanna is harrowing and almost uncomfortable to watch. Genevieve Kingsford, as Johanna, on the other hand, is the antithesis, radiating a luminescent beauty and innocence that oozes through Sondheim’s Green Finch and Linnet Bird song.
Sweeney Todd is probably one of the most accomplished pieces of musical theatre ever written. Horrific and comedic, Sondheim’s score sweeps over and embraces both genres, moving from light to dark, tenderness to rage, innocence to perversion with musical genius. And as a directorial debut for Derek Anderson, it really is an accomplishment to produce such a great adaptation, given the theatre’s small space. Up close and personal, you will experience every nuance, all the gore and even shaving foam!
Watch interviews with the cast of Sweeney Todd here: