Sweeney Todd

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Theatre at the Mill presents 'Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

In celebrating the opening of their brand new theatre, Theatre at the Mill have taken on an ambitious production set in the dark and murky nineteenth-century streets of London. The tale of Sweeney Todd is known to many and the first song recaps on this urban legend. From the outset, the chorus and ensemble cast all work well together, delivering an opening number that both engages the audience and sets the scene for the horrific and bloody events that are to follow. Indeed, with their dark clothes, ghoulish make-up, and strong voices, the chorus deliver musical numbers of a consistently high standard throughout the performance.

As Mrs Lovett (Nuala McKeever) explains the history of Sweeney (Peter Corry) and his family, the events of the back-story are re-enacted upstage behind a number of drab net curtains from David Craig’s eerie set. Combined with Conleth White’s excellent lighting, a wonderfully seedy atmosphere is established in presenting vague snapshots of the Todd family’s history, although such a staging also causes some minor problems in terms of sightlines.

Under the direction of Andrea Montgomery, Hazel Gardner is well cast as the fragile Johanna and the scenes between Johanna and Judge Turpin (Chris Vincent) are splendidly unsettling. In her opening scene, Montgomery firmly establishes Johanna as the young beauty unable to escape her evil captor. Standing alone on a rostrum, she sings while a bird salesman on a step beneath tries to sell a caged nightingale. Later, in contrast to such serenity, Turpin stands half-naked under a solitary spotlight, whipping and purging himself before entering Johanna’s bedroom. The creepiness of his actions and intentions are highlighted and are enough to make skin crawl.

Black comedy is to the fore in scenes featuring Mrs Lovett, and McKeever is marvellous as the pie-shop owner who goes into business with the murdering Todd. Lovett’s pie-selling becomes increasingly popular and she begins to move up in the world, with McKeever’s portrayal giving a much-needed energy to the production. Although her vocal range may not be as perfect as others in the cast, she delivers a terrific performance, from the comedic scenes at the opening to the tragic and often poignant interactions with the boy Tobias (Matt Elson) near the end.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Peter Corry’s disappointing portrayal of Sweeney, whose accent sounded more Belfast than London. Under Montgomery’s direction, his performance did not demonstrate any form of character trajectory, nor did it reveal the dark personality of Sweeney Todd. The first half concludes with Sweeney singing about the bloody revenge he will take on everyone, yet Corry’s performance did not convey any sense of terror in what should be a climactic moment. In the initial stages his portrayal of the character renders little sympathy, while any sense of threat is absent from the latter part of the show.

Sweeney Todd.JPGJohn McManus adds colour and charm to the piece in his enjoyable portrayal of Sig. Pirelli. Switching with ease between the Italian persona of Pirelli and his Scottish alter-ego Danny MacBride, his comic-timing is near perfect and his representation of the brash Italian is first-rate. Meanwhile, Matt Elson is also good as his side-kick Tobias, his boyish looks and voice ideal for the portrayal of an innocent victim caught up in Lovett and Todd’s web of deceit and murder.

Overall, the supporting cast are quite strong, with Tom Murphy and Chris Vincent competently portraying the corrupt Beadle Bramford and Judge Turpin, and with a good performance from Fred Perry as Johanna’s love interest Anthony. However, in many ways it is Fiona O’Carroll as the beggar woman who steals the show. She plays a fool character, a woman with all the information but who is ignored by everybody else. O’Carroll’s voice and acting are superb. With her stained and ragged skirt mirroring the blood-soaked ragged curtains of Craig’s set, her performance is captivating.

The combination of Craig’s set and costume design with White’s lighting design creates an ideal environment for the bloody events of Sweeney Todd’s tale. However, despite some good performances from O’Carroll and McKeever in particular, Montgomery’s production suffers from major problems with pacing and is quite slow in parts, particularly in scenes featuring Sweeney Todd. Unfortunately, this show neither thrills nor horrifies.

Pádraic Whyte is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim

2 - 13 February, 2010

Produced by Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey
In Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Stephen Sondheim, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Directed by Andrea Montgomery

Music Director: Andrew Synott

Set and Costume Design: David Craig

Lighting Design: Conleth White

With: Peter Corry, Nuala McKeever, Fiona O’Caroll, Hazel Gardner, Tom Murphy, Chris Vincent, John McManus, Fred Perry, Matt Elson, Maureen Galbraith, Kat Reagan, Turlough Convery, Simon Cunnigham, Karen Thompson.