‘Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ was sharp.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, a grim and gruesome venture from Stephen Sondheim. An iconic but bleak fable about revenge, poverty, and the madness power brings, staging it for community theatre can be a double edged-razor with audiences familiar with professional interpretations and special effects, they can easily be left disappointed. That however, was not the case with Phoenix Ensemble’s cutthroat production.
Set in 19th Century England. Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, returns to London after being wrongfully charged and shipped off to Australia. He returns to bring vengeance upon Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford; two vicious governmental figures who murdered Benjamin’s wife and daughter.
The lighting by Liam Gilliland forged an austere element for the production. Gilliland used minimal bright colours and full washes, allowing shadows and dark colours to transform the story. While sound by Jacob Cash brought an eerie tone that subtly unnerved the audience, Musical Director Nicky Griffith worked the orchestra to create remarkable performances that enhanced the show with every bloodcurling note. Griffith also managed to highlight the strength of each beautiful voice. The singing throughout gave much intensity and beauty that hooked the audience.
The set design by Wendy Pascoe, Shane Webb, Breanna Gear, and Victoria Sica, strikingly captured downtrodden, industrial London. From the sliding back flats that looked like washed out industrial factories, to the oven door and the dark cobblestones, audiences could feel the weight of the wickedness in this world. The added small blood stains around the stage and curtains was a nice touch.
Costume, hair and makeup design by Breanna Gear was beautiful and distinct for each character, while maintaining the harrowing look of 19th century English attire; a massive undertaking that adds an important visual element.
Ren Gerry’s props appeared authentic, particularly the pies and the blood soaked razors. Details like those can be a close shave for this famous musical, but Gerry’s props delivered.
Shane Webb’s direction complimented Sondheims piece. Webb’s performers created gritty and outlandish deliveries; precisely what this Sondheims musical deserves. The blocking and characterisation made audience members feel like they were watching a fractured fairytale tragedy. Having a big ensemble could have felt jarring on the stage, but Webb managed to use space to his advantage. From well placed set changes, to subtle ensemble jokes that any venturing eye could spot, Webb’s direction powered the mammoth show.
Choreography by Victoria Sica delivered much visual flavour. From the ensemble to the leads, each dance gave delicious filling to the show. It was realistic, and nothing felt stale, which is no easy task.
Lionel Theunissen carried the role of Sweeney masterfully. Theunissen portrait of a guilt-striken loner drew the audience’s attention throughout, and Meg Kiddle as Mrs. Lovett supplied a wonderful contrast. Her calm pyschotic take left the audience uneased with Lovett’s skewed mind. The chemistry between the two was a magnificent highlight, particularly in ‘A Little Priest’ and ‘By The Sea’.
Daniel Lelic as Anthony shined a sweetness on the sad world, which worked well with Ebony Banks as Johanna. Together, they brought a light the audience could cling to. While Alex Dundas Taylor as Judge Turpin contrasted the two with a sickening, repulsive soul, his sidekick, Puawai Herewini as Beadle Bamford left audiences disgusted by his excellent slimy portail.
Joshua Moore was a highlight as Adolfo Pirelli. His energy and spectacular comedic timing gave the audience a nice detour from the horrors of Fleet Street. Another impressive performance was Hudson Bertram as Tobias. Bertram’s deep exploration of a street-hardened boy driven to madness captured the theme of the production, how darkness and power can purge innocence. This climaxed with Bertram’s fantastic work in the finale.
The ensemble drove the production . From setting scenes to giving an almost greek-like chorus to the show, the ensemble helped shape the dire world. Each performer effortlessly brought strength, whether comedic or dramatic, to the story, without drawing attention away from the main performers. A magnificent effort all round.
Sondheim’s nightmare musical can often feel like a drawn out dream, but Phoenix Ensemble’s production shaves all doubts away. It stuffs the piece full of terrifying and stunning moments that will keep audiences on the edge of their barber seats.
Phoenix Ensemble’s production of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ performs until Saturday, 28 May at The Tin Shed. For more information, go to the Pheonix Ensemble website.
Photos by PIF Productions