How do you feel about a certain demon barber looking deep and menacingly into your eyes as he sings about slitting throats? Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in the marvelous, nerve-shredding London transfer of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical (with book by Hugh Wheeler), fizzes with as much terror as Barrow Street Theatre’s impressively designed mock-up of a traditional South London pie-and-mash shop (by Simon Kenny) can contain.
The surroundings are so convincing my friend asked if this was a disused café, or a mysterious ante-room to the theatre.
This 2014 production was originally situated by Tooting Arts Club in Harrington’s, a local pie-and-mash shop open since 1908, before it moved to the West End. Here in New York, before the show audience members can guzzle a delicious chicken or vegetable pie, created by Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef and co-author of Desserts For Dummies, who was nicknamed the “Crustmaster” by then-president Barack Obama.
These pies are served prior to the performance, and the seating is divided into three sections. You may be seated at the long tables on the theater floor, a slightly raised bleachers-like section to the side, or in a row of upper tier seats looking down on the room.
Upstairs you are slightly safer from the imposing Secomb’s waxy-pallored glowering, and the perambulations of other characters like Betsy Morgan’s beggar woman who is not just the crazy, rambling bundle of rags she seems.
Cleared post-eating, the tables are clambered, leant, and lain on by the characters and the audience members to sing or stare at. There is no direct participation required, but if you have a beard or are bald, prepare to be singled out by the cast, as they mull their tonsorial options.
In Kenny’s ingeniously economic design, the counter where we have just picked up our pies becomes the counter of the pie shop for the show, complete with its own oven and sink, and the actors weave around the tables and three musicians, and up two mini-flights of stairs to imagined and unseen destinations as various as a mental asylum and Todd’s barbershop. The pie shop’s walls are distempered, with a simple menu.
The segue from 21st century New York to mid-19th century London is a creeping, unsettling one, as the actors first smilingly greet us table to table, before striking up, in fearful whisper, the recurring ballad of Todd himself: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd./His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.”
Todd’s real name is Benjamin Barker, a convict recently released from prison after 15 years, and back on home turf he learns from his landlady Mrs. Lovett (Siobhán McCarthy), owner of a meat pie shop on Fleet Street, that his wife is dead and daughter Johanna (Alex Finke) is now a ward of the same judge, Turpin (an oleaginous and convincingly cruel Duncan Smith) who had him sent away to an Australian penal colony. Revenge is on Todd’s mind, not just against the judge but against his clients. “These are my friends/See how they glisten,” he sings of his razors, as they catch shafts of light.
The question of how to deal with all the blood is also in Amy Mae’s simple but effective lighting: when an unfortunate, though in some cases deserving, victim of Todd’s killer razor is claimed, a red light is beamed at the audience and a klaxon sounded. As the chorus sings, “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies! Freely flows the blood of those who moralize!”
Yet, apart from bitterness and vengeance, another more sterling, socially cleansing motive for Todd’s murderousness is not made, and Secomb does not endow him with a hero’s gait. He is a monster, though a wronged one, furious on returning to London to behold what it embodies—“its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit…at the top of the hole sit the privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo.”
His nemesis Turpin is the walking form of this abusive privilege, a monster and a do-er of wrongs, and a creepy, implied sexual abuser too, who wishes to make Johanna his wife. That only increases Todd’s determination to do him in.
The frustrated love affair between Johanna and Anthony (Matt Doyle), the handsome sailor who saved Todd, is the production’s one vein of sweetness; and the couple’s love song, “Kiss Me” is sweetly sung, she from the stairs and he standing on one of the tables.
Most of the (masterfully directed by Bill Buckhurst) action takes place on a narrow channel of flooring in front of the pie shop counter—including a bravura rendition of “The Contest,” as sung by Pirelli, a competing barber whose cologne is likely made of piss, played by double-dutying Betsy Morgan.
Forget the campy psychopathy of Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s lushly orchestral and designed 2007 film version. What roots the production is Secomb’s chill fury and seeming physical restraint, which makes his explosions of violence that much more memorable.
When Secomb is not on stage, you sit and wait for him to appear from the shadows, and hopefully not inches from your face. Your nerves at being within the action command as much of your attention as the performances, and the three wonderful musicians—Matt Aument, the musical director on piano, Tomoko Akaboshi (violin), and Michael Favreau (clarinet)—who manage to sound like a full orchestra.
Todd’s wonderful duet with the smug and awful Turpin, “Pretty Women,” blooms with his first attempt at murdering the sleazeball who eventually imprisons Johanna, and who also has—as every villain must—a sidekick. Beadle (Brad Oscar) has two memorable solos of his own, “Ladies In Their Sensitivities” and “Parlour Songs.”
Mistaken identity, terrible twists, and fateful disguises variously lead to more misunderstandings and more death. But standing out at the heart of the show, as she so often does (played in the past by actresses as diverse as Julia McKenzie and Patti LuPone) is McCarthy’s marvelously grotesque Mrs. Lovett. An insane, walking cataclysm of villainies and frailties, there is first her merry devil of a song about making the “worst pies in London,” followed—in “Poor Thing”—by her relating to Todd the tragic tale of what happened to his family after he was sent away.
She is both smothering momma bear to Toby (Joseph Taylor), Pirelli’s assistant, who can see her hopeless devotion to Todd and the dark end to which it may lead her.
But, hopelessly in love with Todd, she is also the proud mastermind of the pie-making system—Mae’s lights configure this as the most livid off-stage inferno, a true wellspring of Hell—whereby Todd’s victim’s flesh ends up as barely edible for consumption. Yet, as we see, London’s inhabitants merrily gorge themselves, unwittingly, on their own.
Their plan is revealed in the sinister song, “A Little Priest,” imagining all the professions murdered for the pies, and then—at the beginning of act two—“God That’s Good” sees the lip-smacking feasting that results: “the crust all velvety and wavy,” we learn—these human flesh pies so much more delicious than the awful meat ones Mrs. Lovett was making before.
McCarthy’s fantastic performance, crowned by a rats’ tails hairdo, perfectly captures Mrs. Lovett’s homely and hungry embodiment of the diabolical. She will sacrifice anything and anyone for Todd, including poor Toby, whose duet with her, “Not While I’m Around” is one of the most heartbreaking in the show, contrasting his true loyalty and love and her faking of loyalty and love.
She is also the master of Sondheim’s abbreviated, punchy phrasing—also so evident in downtown Sweeney’s present Broadway Sondheim cousin, Sunday In The Park With George—in a song like “Wait”: “Easy now. Hush, love, hush,” Mrs Lovett softly insists. “Don’t distress yourself, what’s your rush? Keep your thoughts nice and lush. Wait.”
Of course, Toby is proved right, and as the body count rises at the end of the show, one realizes how Sondheim, and this company in particular (with such a modest set and musical apparatus), have so skillfully engineered to keep you both laughing and also terrified and horrified throughout. Sweeney Todd folds love, innocence, control, corruption, madness, and murder: the most extreme beats of ourselves and of our cities.
The charnel house is both Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and the city it exists within. Todd as moral avenger is morally corrupted too. A kernel of love survives at the end, but it is of scant comfort—and, just as it began, so Sweeney Todd ends with that galloping, persistent, whispered incantation of the central character’s legend—which, even with the final clang of a door, we will never be free of.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is at Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, NYC, until August 13. Book tickets here.