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The Theatreguide.London Review

Sweeney Todd
39 Shaftsbury Avenue   Spring 2015

Exciting, melodic, intimate, beautifully acted and sung, this is one of the best productions of the brilliant Sondheim-Wheeler musical ever. And it's playing to fewer than 70 people a night, so rush to grab your ticket before the limited run sells out completely. 

It was Rachel Edwards of the Tooting Arts Club who had the inspiration of producing Sweeney Todd in an actual South London pie shop last year, squeezing in 32 seats and a tiny performance area each evening when the pie buyers had gone.

And now Cameron Mackintosh has underwritten a transfer to a pop-up replica of the shop in a temporarily vacant Shaftsbury Avenue restaurant, doubling the audience capacity but in every other way retaining the special excitement of director Bill Buckhurst's inventive staging. 

With the performers sometimes mere inches away from you, this is a Sweeney Todd freed from other producers' temptations to overpowering productions. 

The singers are as likely to sit at your table or stand on it as stay in the performance area around the shop counter, Signor Pirelli may dab some of his miracle elixir on your bald spot, and Sweeney may be looking at you, nose to nose, when he considers his next victim. 

This is more than just a gimmick. Playing up so close, Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney and Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs. Lovett can act in much smaller and subtle ways than a large theatre would allow, the mere raising of a eyebrow or tilt of a head speaking volumes that would be lost in a more conventional production. 

And wonder of wonders, director Buckhurst has assembled a cast who, almost uniquely these days, can make themselves heard over a single piano, viola and clarinet. I cannot exaggerate the delight of hearing the unamplified human voice throughout the show. 

What's even better is that, without muddying amplification, the singers' excellent diction allows all of Sondheim's witty words to be heard. 

I personally have seen eight productions of Sweeney Todd over the years, including the original on Broadway, and this time around I heard some lyrics for the very first time. (It turns out, for example, that the young lovers' patter song Kiss Me is full of very clever jokes. Who knew?) 

Meanwhile musical director Benjamin Cox's simple arrangements bring out all the melodic loveliness and sophistication of Sondheim's melodies, and if you've ever had doubts that Sweeney Todd's score is of operatic stature, this tiny production will demolish them. 

Jeremy Secomb invests Todd's madness with the dynamic and demonic energy of a Richard III or Iago, while Siobhan McCarthy navigates the very difficult course of capturing all of Mrs. Lovett's comedy without letting her seem to have wandered in from some other, lighter musical. 

Zo Doano and Nadim Naaman give the young lovers more spunk and personality than most others have, and there is solid support from Kiara Jay, Duncan Smith, Ian Mowat and Joseph Taylor. 

Run, do not walk.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Sweeney Todd - Shafstbury Avenue Pop-up Pie Shop - 2015    


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