Talk about a close shave. In this hair-raising chamber version of Sondheim’s gory musical chiller about the demon barber of Fleet Street you don’t just watch as Sweeney lathers up his victims, you feel the flecks of shaving foam land on your own cheeks and the breeze as he whets his cut-throat razors. Before you leave you had better check your bag for bloodstains.
Tooting Arts Club made headlines with its production late last year, staged in a genuine old pie and mash shop in south London to a tiny, sometimes terrified audience. Now, while Harrington’s venerable establishment is refurbished, the whole enterprise has been shifted, pie shop and all, to the site of a former nightclub in the West End (courtesy of Sondheim himself, who was so impressed by the show he persuaded producer Cameron Mackintosh to find a space for it).
So here it is, lovingly recreated in precise detail, down to the narrow tables, wooden benches, green tiling, flickering candlelight and menu advertising “stewed eels with licker”. Audience members, crammed together like morsels in a pie, flinch as the cast leap on to the tables to sell their wares, declare their love or, in Sweeney’s case, throttle a victim. If you’re a little thin on top you might find your pate rubbed with a swindler’s hair-restoring tonic. Eager customers crowd in beside you to devour Mrs Lovett’s mysteriously good pies: if you are brave, you can sample them yourself.
Bill Buckhurst’s ingenious production is meatier than just a gimmick, however. The intimate Victorian eaterie perfectly frames the claustrophobic atmosphere and cut-and-thrust plot of this penny-dreadful tale of a desperate, crime-racked London. Close up, you can savour Sondheim’s razor-sharp lyrics and intricate score, played here on a piano, violin and clarinet. The cast, bustling around you, deliver the story with peppery pace and turn cutlery into instruments, with the sort of resourcefulness Mrs Lovett would applaud.
There’s nice contrast between Jeremy Secomb’s brooding, haunted Sweeney and Siobhán McCarthy’s chirpy, but increasingly desperate Mrs Lovett. Zoë Doano makes a sweet and sweet-voiced Johanna, the innocent love interest, with Nadim Naaman pining ardently as her lovelorn sailor.
The recipe is not entirely perfect. The show is sometimes louder and more insistent than it needs to be at such close quarters: more variety of tone would render it the spookier. But, like Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett before them, the company combine thrift, skill and ingenuity to make an irresistible tasty treat.
To May 16, tootingartsclub.co.uk
Get alerts on Stephen Sondheim when a new story is published