Haunting organ music emanating from a darkened stage and the sudden appearance of zombie-like corpses draped in plastic who bounce up briskly and burst into song is enough to captivate anyone’s attention.
Such is the startling opening of the musical thriller ‘Sweeney Todd,’ the classic tale about the demon barber of Fleet Street, hosted by the Lyric Theatre, Belfast in collaboration with the Northern Ireland Opera.
But while a plot involving a serial killer hell-bent on societal revenge and a co-conspirator who revels in transforming the fresh flesh of victims into flavourful meat pies seems too gruesome to savour lightly, this particular production directed by Walter Sutcliffe injects generous doses of black humor and audience interaction into the mix, causing people to chuckle one minute and gasp with distaste the next.
Take for example, a comical duet between Steven Page, who plays the pale and somber Sweeney with strong, sonorous voice, and Cockney-sounding Julie Mullins as the pragmatic baker Mrs. Lovett on the relative merits of pies made from politicians (too oily) and shepherd’s pie with the ‘most authentic’ of ingredients. The song ‘A Little Priest’ has several disturbing yet humorous lyrics, including describing the taste of a pie made out of a priest, “Sir, it’s too good, at least! / Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh, / So it’s pretty fresh.”
Compare that with the presence on-stage of an imposing grinding machine, an oven, cutting instruments such as hatchet and hacksaw to reduce limbs of the unfortunates into tasty morsels. Plus a bloodied body falling from ceiling to stage-floor with a resounding thud for added effect.
Set designer Dorota Karolczak and lighting director Wolfgang Göbbel have created a menacing atmosphere through the enticing interplay of light and shadow on a stage backdrop of dark wood paneling, while skillful use of revolving and sliding partitions enable interlinking scenes to evolve smoothly. Costumes reflect the Victorian origins of this gory story but imaginative use of UV light on socks and gloves contribute a surprisingly modern twist.
A key element of the plot is that Sweeney has suffered severe injustice and the perpetrators of that are played wonderfully by Richard Croxford as the corrupt Beadle Bamford and Mark O’Regan as nasty Judge Turpin who raped the barber’s wife, locked up his daughter and had Sweeney convicted and transported on a trumped-up charge.
Among all the blood, however, there is beauty, in the form of love and loyalty. There’s Sweeney’s unwavering fidelity to the memory of his wife, Lucy, and daughter, Johanna, and there is sailor Anthony Hope’s (played by John Porter) wooing of the virtuous daughter (played by Jessica Hackett) including his beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Johanna.’ Not to mention Mrs. Lovett’s maternal concern for the naive Tobias, played by Jack Wolfe. Elaine Hearty should also be commended for her convincing portrayal of a street beggar, a character who turns out to be a central figure in the whole saga.
Memorable scenes in this three-hour show include one involving inmates in an asylum, a communal pie-eating episode to the tune of ‘God, That’s Good’ and a shaving contest featuring comical conman character, the Salvador Dalí-like Adolfo Pirelli played with gusto by Matt Cavan.
Audience participation also enhances the overall performance – with one man guided on-stage for a shave and members of the ensemble mingling in the aisles on several occasions, at one point offering people slices of meat pie (I ate mine – but with a fair degree of understandable reluctance). Special mention must also go to talented support musicians led by conductor Sinead Hayes.
Music and lyrics for ‘Sweeney Todd’ are by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler while the musical itself is based on the 1973 play ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ by Christopher Bond.