My only real, pressing question after a night at Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was this: Can someone please make this production bloodier?
I love me some gore, and as much as I enjoyed this performance as a whole, I felt that it could have at least churned our stomachs a little. Despite the ample opportunity to achieve this, I’m afraid the show falls short in this regard. Shaw’s Sweeney (Benedict Campbell) is hardly a “demon barber” with that unimpressive amount of blood.
Here’s the thing with Campbell’s Sweeney: he doesn’t scare you. He’s like a big ol’ teddy bear chopping people’s heads off.
At first, his more reserved demeanor works to his advantage – we see a kinder and more human Sweeney. Then, he goes through all the supposedly horrific motions of the Sweeney we expect, but it just doesn’t feel frightening enough.
Here’s how the action of the 1979 musical thriller (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler) ensues: Benjamin Barker, under the alias Sweeney Todd, arrives in London with a young sailor named Anthony (Jeff Irving), whom he tells his story to: Todd was sent away years ago by a judge who wanted to romantically pursue his wife. Upon his return, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Jenny L. Wright in this performance, but regularly played by Corrine Koslo), a woman who sells “the worst pies in London” at a store below the barber shop he once owned. They get to talking and after Todd finds out what happened to his wife (or rather, what he thinks happened to his wife), he begins to plot his revenge.
Despite lacking the brand of horror I ever-so desired, the production as a whole still passes the test for me, as it has a lot of upsides.
Firstly, where Campbell’s monstrosity dwindles, Wright makes up for it with flying colours. She plays Mrs. Lovett with a distinctive fire and is deceptive and ruthless both in her pursuit of Sweeney and her dedication to her new, booming business.
Secondly, we’re talking music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim here. The score is complex and terrifying. Musical director Paul Sportelli delivers on the high-energy, mood-setting songs that seem to have a plot of their own.
The ensemble does the score justice, performing the songs with force and the uncompromising energy required to carry the bizarreness through. Irving as Anthony and Kristi Frank as Johanna, in particular, have notably beautiful voices. They are well-cast in the roles of the young lovers and provide the audience with a spot-on, gorgeous duet to “Kiss Me.”
Then there’s the design. Judith Bowden presents us with a foggy, worn-down, industrial set, which is very reminiscent of poverty-ridden Victorian London. It feels dirty. It fits the bill as the right atmosphere to envelope the world of darkness and desperation that is Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd marks the end of an era at Shaw. It is the last show of artistic director Jackie Maxwell’s tenure, and whichever way you slice it, it’s definitely going to be a conversation piece.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 19. For more information, visit http://www.shawfest.com/.