The story of Sweeney Todd is firmly ingrained in the cultural landscape, having been presented in books, films, a very well-known musical by Stephen Sondheim and even an exhibit at the London Dungeon. So much so that you could be forgiven for thinking that the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a real life historical crime story, such as Jack the Ripper, even though it is completely fictional. This notion may have been compounded by the statement sometimes used to advertise the original play, that it was “founded on fact”
The origins of this gruesome story date back to its first appearance as a Penny dreadful serialisation in The String of Pearls, which ran from 1846 to 1847. Not long after, the story was turned into a melodrama which premiered at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. Opera della Luna have used this original script by George Dibdin Pitt, along with a score taken from the works of theatre music composers of the era (as the original score for Sweeney Todd is long lost) , to lovingly recreate a long forgotten genre of theatre.
This version of the familiar tale doesn’t give any backstory to how Todd and Mrs Lovett came to be working together in their despicable enterprise and when we first meet Todd (Nick Dwyer), the process of “polishing off” customers as pie fillings is a well-oiled machine. It’s at this stage however, that Todd’s curious apprentice boy (Caroline Kennedy), has become suspicious of Todd’s behaviour and runs off in fear of what he has been doing, along with the hat of a late customer Thornhill (Matt Kellett), from whom Todd has relieved of the aforementioned string of pearls.
As the story unfolds, the focus is less on Todd’s actions and is more centred on the characters who are affected by Thornhill’s murder and the theft of the pearls, which sailor Thornhill was delivering on behalf of his colleague, Mark Industry, to his beloved Johanna Oakley (Madeline Robinson). Todd becomes the pantomime villain, who pops in and out, trying to sell the pearls, silence those who are on to him and dodge the law as the net closes in on him. We meet Johanna’s parents, Cecily Maybush, a young girl taken in by the Oakleys (Lynsey Docherty) and the oh-so-creepy Reverend Lupid (Paul Featherstone). All of them become embroiled in the mystery of Thornhill’s disappearance and ultimately come together with the aim of bringing Todd to justice for his crimes.
We meet Mrs Lovett later on in the story, again played wonderfully by Lynsey Docherty, as she discusses with Todd about the need to replace their enslaved pie maker with a new unfortunate soul. That person is down at heel Jarvis Williams (Matthew Siveter) who has a scene stealing-song whilst consuming many of Lovett’s coveted pies.
As befitting the style of a melodrama, all of the twenty characters are deliciously larger than life and are played skilfully by a cast of only seven. On top of this they are also skilled opera singers, many of them have their own solos (Madeline Robinson’s performance, a particularly beautiful vocal standout), which act as a counter balance to the heightened, often-farcical drama.
Dwyer as Todd is disconcertingly charismatic, turning from gentleman to calculating psychopath in an instant. He plays the villain of the piece with aplomb, breaking the fourth wall and clearly relishing the boos from the audience whilst at the same time threating them into silence.
Clever and witty direction from Jeff Clarke saves the show from just being one-note or outdated theatre, which risks simply being something that is laughed at. Instead he skilfully pays homage and celebrates the farcical pantomime quality of the melodrama, which allows the audience to share in the joke and the absurdity.
Along with simple staging, including a trap door where Todd dispatches his victims (who in the original version were stabbed and just dragged to the trapdoor) the inclusion of a 10-piece orchestra adds to the authenticity of the piece.
Keeping true to the melodrama format, the conclusion of the story sees the villains brought to task and the heroes given a happy ending, in this case with pearls restored to their rightful owner and a lover returned from the dead. Again, what otherwise could have been an unrealistic ending compared to modern storytelling, there is savvy humour wrung out of the mechanics of the cast playing multiple roles: with all of the cast assembled on stage, when someone asks about the whereabouts of their alternate character, there is a knowing look to the audience followed swiftly by a dash off stage for a quick change.
Even if perhaps it slightly outstays its welcome with an excessive running time, Sweeney Todd is a wonderfully fun exploration into the exaggerated Victorian Melodrama genre. With an impressive strong cast who all delight in bringing the original stage version of Sweeney Todd to a modern informed 21st century audience.
The notorious Fiend of Fleet Street told as Victorian Melodrama finds the perfect setting at Wilton’s ★★★★