“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
He served a dark and a vengeful god
What happened then, well, that’s the play
And he wouldn’t want us to give it away
Not Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street.”
A chorus of men and women, dressed in the Victorian style, their faces pale and their eyes in shadow, deliver the prologue of one of the most unusual and riveting musicals ever written. Two men enter the stage. One is young and happy; the other is older and looks haggard. There is a darkness in him the audience will discover later.
It’s London; the 19th century. Anthony Hope (Cameron Botha), the bright-eyed sailor, sings how happy he is to be back in London, a city like no other. Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth), the brooding older man, agrees, but for a different reason:
“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of London.”
Todd makes his way to Fleet Street, where he arrives at a pie shop. The audience is introduced to the owner, Mrs Nellie Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros), who laments her lack of customers. In a delightfully blunt way, she explains:
“Mind you, I can’t hardly blame them
These are probably the worst pies in London!
I know why nobody cares to take them,
I should know, I make them,
But good? No!
The worst pies in London,
Even that’s polite!
The worst pies in London,
If you doubt it, take a bite!”
Mrs Lovett recognises Sweeney as Benjamin Barker, a barber who was sent to prison for 15 years on a trumped up charge. He enquires after his wife, Lucy, and is told she committed suicide after being raped by a well-known judge, Turpin (Michael Richard), the one who condemned Benjamin in order to gain access to Lucy. Sweeney also learns that Turpin has “adopted” his daughter, Johanna (Sanli Jooste).
Sweeney is enraged and vows to get revenge on the judge, and the latter’s lackey, Beadle Bamford (Adam Pelkowitz). Mrs Lovett gives Sweeney his razor kit, which she had kept when he was imprisoned. Sweeney decides to reopen his barber shop, with the goal of luring the judge there in order to kill him. While he bides his time, Sweeney’s anger festers, and he allays his desire for retribution by slitting the throats of his customers, an interim solution to quench his thirst for blood. Mrs Lovett becomes his willing sidekick, having found a solution to her problem of sourcing meat for her pies. In the meantime, a crazy beggar woman (Anne-Marie Clulow), badgers everyone she comes across; she is scorned and treated unkindly, but will come to play a pivotal role.
Sweeney Todd is a musical that is ghoulish, bloody, suspenseful, and filled with dark humour. The story takes its inspiration from an urban legend about the “demon barber of Fleet Street”, a gothic tale that is written in the vein of the so-called penny dreadfuls of the Victorian era. This is the kind of show South Africans, who love their Andrew Lloyd Webbers, and Rodgers and Hammerstein (nothing wrong with that), have never seen before.
Jonathan Roxmouth is commanding, fiercely intense, and brilliant as he portrays Sweeney’s tragic descent from the grieving and wronged barber, into a ruthless serial killer, punishing the ‘innocent’ for his inability to kill the one person who’s throat he wishes to slit. He screams at the audience, daring anyone to sit in his chair, promising the closest shave they’ll ever have:
“No ones in the chair, Come on! Come on!
Sweeney’s waiting. I want you bleeders.
You sir! Anybody!
Gentlemen now don’t be shy!”
Sweeney evokes contradictory feelings: he’s a murderous sociopath, and yet there must be empathy and understanding for how he became the demon. Roxmouth is masterful at portraying inner turmoil, after all, he did it so well as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. Playing Sweeney Todd is a dream role, he tells me. “If you’re in the musical theatre and you have an A-flat and a brain, there are three roles you want to play: the Phantom, Jean Valjean, and Sweeney Todd (listen to my full interview with Jonathan below).”
Charon Williams-Ros’ Mrs Lovett provides the (dark) comic relief, but her lightheartness, witticisms, and puns belie a much darker side, and hidden motives. Williams-Ros is a pure delight. There is an interesting dynamic between the two leads. In this version, Mrs Lovett is much older than Sweeney, which, Roxmouth explains, creates a power play in which Mrs Lovett often dominates. Michael Richard gives a powerful performance as the nauseating, corrupt Judge Turpin, who evokes more disgust than Sweeney.
The set is incredible – the first double storey set in the Pieter Toerien theatre I’m told. The set design makes good use of a small space to show the bleak Victorian London (quite Dickensian. It’s rather marvellous watching Sweeney kill his victims in his shop on the top floor, then pulling a leaver on the chair, and sending the body down a trap door which opens up to the ovens below, where Mrs Lovett cuts them up and makes her pies.
The music is not the sing-along kind (or what you’d get on an iTunes playlist, Roxmouth explains). The songs are frenetic, and yet some of them, like “God, that’s good!”, in which Mrs Lovett’s customers beg for more of her popular, meat-filled pies.
This is a show about revenge, but also about identity, love, and obsession. It’s about debasement and our lowest, most rotten desires. It’s the horror of this show that makes it so enjoyable: the cathartic experience, but also schadenfreude. It’s a story that calls for the “I-wish-I-could-get-rid-of-those-who’ve-hurt-me” desire, something which is universal and speaks to everyone, which explains the standing ovations night after night.
Many South Africans’ only experience of this story will be Tim Burton’s film version starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie was delightful, but theatre show is more visceral and intimate; the humour is darker, and the horror more frightful.
Sweeney Todd is showing at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Monte Casino from 9 October to 29 November 2015, and will head to Cape Town in January.