Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

(Gold Coast Arts Centre)


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

With Rob Guest and Mandi Lodge

Amateur production

How do you like your meat pies?

Plump and juicy? Then try a little priest. Something pinker? Tinker. Paler? Tailor. Subtler? Butler. Hotter? Potter. Then there’s chimney sweep, if you want it cheap. Some shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top?

If you were in London’s Fleet Street in the late 19th century, you’d have had an enormous choice, for Mrs Lovett’s famous pies were as varied as they were fresh – so fresh, in fact, that the creature that provided the meat filling had probably been killed just a few hours earlier.

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the so-called Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has been around since at least 1840, and who knows whether that’s where Jack the Ripper got his ideas 40 years later.

The story goes that to avenge his wife’s death, and to save his daughter from being ravished by the evil Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd escapes from his fate as a transported convict and sets up in his old trade as a barber, in lodgings just above Mrs Lovett’s pie ship which, because of her dependence on cheap and nasty meat, is not going well.

While planning to get Judge Turpin to visit him for a shave, Sweeney Todd renews his skill with a cut-throat razor and acquires a lust for blood, eventually constructing a tilting chair and a chute which deliver his victims directly below into the kitchen of Mrs Lovett, whose pies suddenly become much desired by the local populace.

Stephen Sondheim’s transformation of this story into a musical is almost operatic in mode and, witty and menacing as it is, makes great musical demands on chorus and soloists alike.

Luckily the Gold Coast Arts Centre, who produced and presented this version of what I think is one of the greatest musicals ever written, had the talents of international and now local hero to call on, in the shape of Rob Guest. The success of any production of Sweeney Todd depends on the competence of the eponymous hero, and all a reviewer can do is applaud Guest’s consummate performance skills. From his thrilling baritone voice to his sinister demeanour and total command of the material, Guest made a perfect tortured and despairing Sweeney, and his activities with that cut-throat razor were swash-bucklingly terrifying.

This was an amateur production, and I don’t know whether Rob Guest contributed his talents gratis or not, but the rest of the cast were in fine voice, too, so that their singing almost managed to overcome the disastrous effects of the costumes, which had come from stock, and so cannot be blamed on wunderkind Christopher Smith, whose set was a marvel of ingenuity.

Robert Young, as director and choreographer, formed his motley collection of actors and singers into a very creditable ensemble, helped by the excellent voices among the soloists. As Mrs Lovett, Gold Coast veteran Mandi Lodge was frighteningly coy, and her shrieks of delight and horror would send shudders up any man’s spine, especially Sweeney Todd’s when she began her relentless sexual pursuit of him.

Jordan Reid, as the romantic male lead, was another star, and Alison Watson, the luckless daughter of Todd and the object of Judge Turpin’s evil intentions, gave her glorious soprano voice full range. She’s more a singer than an actor, though, and the addition of possibly the worst blonde wig in stage history since Jean Simmons in Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet many years ago unfortunately made her look like an unlikely object of anyone’s lust, even a frustrated judge’s.

But in the end the play’s the thing, and Sweeney Todd is deservedly regarded as Sondheim’s greatest musical. So as long as there’s a decent Sweeney (as we had here in Rob Guest), and a competent orchestra (ditto the Gold Coast Arts Orchestra) there’s very little that can go wrong, and this production got it very right indeed. Keep an eye out for their next offering, which I believe is Matthew Ward presenting an evening of Broadway classics on 13 July.

Director and choreographer Robert Young

Set designer Christopher Smith

Musical director Kellie Dickerson

Played 28 June to 7 July 2007

Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, with one 20-minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 28th June 2007)