SWING YOUR RAZOR HIGH SWEENEY RAISE IT TO THE SKY!
Justin Cotta was glorious. Utterly disturbing of course, as Sweeney should be, but glorious.
Definitely one of my longest reviews!
Originally posted on The AU Review
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd! The theatre is dark, the first harsh notes of the “Organ Prelude” sound, the lights fade in to red and the ensemble introduces us to The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,Sweeney Todd.
Right from the start, this production demonstrates the musical’s reputation as menacing, dark and slightly mad.
The large warehouse space of the New Theatre does wonders in achieving this. The vast empty area increases this feeling of uneasy menace that a smaller theatre could not achieve. When the lights are blacked out, shadows chase the actors around the walls, with the dull red lights playing tricks on your mind and the echoing area making voices resound loudly despite the lack of mics.
The ensemble stays on stage throughout the entire production, and are admirably used to great effect. They constantly stare with their blank faces towards Todd, silent witnesses to this tale of descending madness. Their presence makes you feel a little bit uneasy, but I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it’s their expressions, or because you begin to associate as part of them. It’s a brilliant use of stagecraft. When singing in chorus their voices work in a balanced harmony, mixtures of strong bass and piercing soprano. Their smooth and speedy movements around the stage when constantly rearranging and locking the two large stair props is also worthy of praise!
This is a large stage, but the whole cast makes a real effort in moving to make eye contact with the audience. These moments pull you further into the tale, and this effort to make you feel you’re in some way involved in the insanity of this story they’re depicting is effective. There are often pieces that solely focus on the eye contact of the actor and the audience. For example during “The Barber and His Wife” we are left to solely focus on Sweeney and his immensely expressive face. Sweeney comes forward towards the audience, and the light dully illuminates his face against the darker background- pure focus on this one man at the start of his dark journey.
Sweeney Todd (performed by Justin Cotta) is perfect- enigmatic, emotional, articulate and very much deranged. There are a number of moments when the expressions portrayed through the large eyes and slight twitches of the fingers are subtly magnificent. These happen as he opens his razor again for the first time, as he listens to Anthony’s declarations towards Johanna, as he listens to Mrs Lovett’s dream- these perfect expressions that don’t let you look away from his mad eyes. There is a perfect balance being portrayed here of a man who is both sane and completely insane at the same time. It’s a difficult expression to portray, but one that Cotta has a perfect handle on.
His constant movement and prowling around the stage during “Epiphany” is particularly hypnotizing. Here we truly began to witness the cracking of a man as he descends into his bloody madness. His movements are erratic, and his voice equally so- jumping between ballad to coarse shouting to seductive growls. It’s enough to send shivers down your spine.
The characteristic Mrs Lovett (Lucy Miller) at Sweeney’s side manages to perfectly balance the comedic and seriousness of her role. During her solo’s we are given a glimpse into the inner workings of Mrs Lovett, the peculiar infatuation that drives her in assisting Sweeney. Her introduction during “The Worst Pies in London” shows the uniqueness of her character, and Miller allows just a touch of her normal singing voice to crack through Lovett’s strong charisma to show a talented handle of vocals.
Whenever Sweeney and Lovett are on stage together you can be assured of witnessing two actors perform with a real chemistry- and not just of the strange romantic kind that these characters have going on, but a stage chemistry. One that helps them support the other and not draw your attention away from either. Their voices and style works really well together, and you can be sure to be equally amused at their hilarity and intensely disturbed by their words and actions. This is exactly the wonder of their performance during “A Little Priest”- equal parts hilarity and horror.
Due credit is also to Anthony Hope, who manages to confidently display a sense of the righteous man who seeks to do good no matter the consequences. Really in this way he is not much different from Sweeney, who both seem to have a tendency to disregard consequences in the efforts of following their own desires and adamant that theirs is the right course of action. Andersons voice as he pours out his emotion in “Johanna” is beautiful to behold.
That very Johanna (Jaimie Leigh Johnson) is gentle and dressed in a pure white. This combined with her higher vocal range represents someone quite apart from the rest of the impure characters. She is pure and innocent, and a direct contrast to the darker growling characters.
Her dark ward The Judge (Byron Watson) is brilliantly erotic and twisted, his handsome baritone a false cover for his ugly heart. He is accompanied by a superbly portrayed Beadle Bamford (Simon Ward), whose characteristic little ‘sniggel’ caused an uncontrollable little shudder every time I heard it.
Tobias Ragg (Aimee Timmins) is in this production played by a female and it is wonderful. Her wide eyes and characteristic vocals really capture you when she’s on stage. The character and youthful vocals really break through the heaviness of the rest of the production- with solos like “Perelli’s Miracle Elixir”, guaranteed to stay in your head for hours. That’s what did the trick sir.
It’s so captivating how scenes often manage to be all at once intensely violent and dramatic, and hilariously comical. Sweeney Todd is quite unique in it’s ability to make you feel all sorts of things at once, and really make you unsure of any of what your feeling.
The climatic end builds rapidly – Sweeney has now completely descended into his bloody darkness now, and is close to his revenge. Those who unfortunately appear in his path are ruthlessly killed- including the beggar woman Lucy (Courtney Glass). He is able to trick the Judge into appearing before him once more and dramatically reveals his identity before swiftly enacting his long-sought revenge. A disguised Johanna dangerously crosses his path in the midst of his madness, but he is distracted by the cry of Mrs Lovett. Running to the basement he uncovers the body of Lucy and finally recognizes her as his lost wife. His anger turns to Mrs Lovett, and in a hidden rage he dances with her before charging to pushing her in her pie oven. The doors slam on the menacing smoke and red light. The screams echo through the silent theatre.
An enraged Tobias disposes of Sweeney, a swift end at the hands of his very own murderous razor. Bodies are now strewn across the floor. In this chaotic end the victims of Sweeney return to sing of his tale, walking through the dark light once more. The stage is coloured in the demon red, the smoke, the lights, the music and the shadows following this final message of the Demon Barber.
Sondheim’s work always has an immensely captivating storytelling to it. He is always so aware of his characters, their situations, their feelings and their stories. The music, lyrics and book work in such perfect tandem to demonstrate an exact amount of shock, emotion and laughter that he wants from his crowd and this production has here done true justice to Sondheim’s work.
I have attended the tale of Sweeney Todd, and now, your turn.