Top tip: do not book a haircut the day after you watch Sweeney Todd. Even if it is your only day off in a month; even if your hair looks like a Yasi-ravaged garden. As soon as the cutthroat was pulled out and my neck was lathered up, I began sweating and silently praying. A clear sign that the cast and crew of Sweeney staged a memorable and intimidating production.
Opening in the same week as Halloween, Full Throttle Theatre could not have chosen a better time of year to stage their production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street – one of the world’s most iconic grim, grisly, gore-filled productions.
The play adaptation, written prior to its musical counterpart, is the first to have given the audience a reason to sympathise with titular character Sweeney Todd, thanks to a dark backstory in which we discover his wife was raped and daughter adopted by Judge Turpin while Todd was held in a penal colony – thus the murderous revenge plot forms.
Sweeney Todd (Luke Reynolds – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Panic Stations) forms a tag-team alliance with his ex-landlady Mrs Lovett (Julie Johnston – The Graduate, Displaced) to carry out the murder and disposal of lonely travelers and local wrong-doers – however in doing so ties in local street rat Tobias (Samuel Audas-Ryan), who forms an unhealthy addiction to Mrs Lovett’s creations.
Luke’s portrayal of Sweeney is a powerful personification of anguish-turned-retribution. While the cast’s faces are heavily made up, the expressions on Luke’s face shone through and added an incredible depth to his character. For those that saw Luke in Cuckoo’s Nest, you will know the lengths he can take his character to – but if anything, he takes Sweeney even further and you believe every moment of pain he goes through.
Julie’s Mrs Lovett was a glowing, almost humourous contrast to Luke’s darkness throughout the show, adding a frankness and honesty to the character that made her all the more loveable. Julie’s makeup in particular added to her character, with the sharp angles emphasising her brash and cunning attitude.
Samuel as Tobias was the character you loved to hate – the chihuahua that your friend brought to visit but left behind. It was great to see the evolution of Sam’s character throughout the play; Tobias has the largest shift in personality from opening to closing, and this is a shift that Sam took in his stride and made his own.
Several fast and fleeting characters also had stand-out performances, including Glenn McCarthy’s (The 39 Steps, The Graduate) Pirelli and Paula Mandl’s (I Am A Camera, The Graduate) Mr Fogg. Glenn has a way with accents and body language, which combined had the audience laughing from the moment he strode on stage. Paula’s character is more intimidating than Sweeney himself, and she delivered every line in a way that caused seductive terror – yes, that is now a thing.
The ensemble themselves need to be commended on taking directions and running with them, turning the Old Courthouse Theatre from a bustling town square to the darkest corners of an off-the-radar asylum. The use of space in and out of the theatre itself was incredibly clever, with intermission finishing town-crier style on the front steps as patrons were finishing off their perfectly-themed mid-show pies.
The major standout of this production however was the collaboration behind the scenes, bringing the show from page to stage. It was clear from the show opening that it wouldn’t be the Sweeney people may have seen before, with sketch marks lining people’s faces and hairlines and comic panels flashing on the screen above them as scenes played out. The comic panels in particular were used to great effect, illustrating the more gruesome scenes without too much added gore on stage, allowing the younger audience members to enjoy the show without too many recurring nightmares – but still delivering shocking and powerful scenes of struggle. This ‘live graphic novel’ idea, conceptualised by Director Sonia Zabala and facilitated by graphic designer Dane Hallam and lead makeup artist Georgia O’Gorman, was incredibly inventive and pulled off extremely well, with the characters below looking like part of the story illustrated above.
A couple of technical issues did arise, with some of the major murders appearing on the screen seconds before they were carried out on stage, but this can be forgiven when admiring the finesse and detail in the drawings complementing traits of each character. The show was also drawn out and lost pace in parts, so ensure you have three hours set aside for the performance (but this does include intermission, with pre-ordered pies available to stem any hangriness).
Congratulations to the cast, crew, and in particular the creative team on an incredible feat: Sweeney Todd is half play, half visual artwork. It is confronting, hilarious, and above all else, a remarkable piece of theatre.
Catch Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Old Courthouse Theatre from 30 October – 10 November.