After Close Up Magic, Here’s Close Up Terror
That’s the second night in a row I’ve been spattered in blood. After the first time, we walked blood across the pristine white floors of our apartment and made the place look like an abattoir. I had just seen ‘Carrie’ on stage at the Southwark Playhouse, an energetic production of the pulp novel that boasted two brilliant central performances and several touching slow numbers. Last night found us crammed underneath the road in Shaftesbury Avenue (a street looking increasingly bizarre at night thanks to the decision to allow red and yellow striped lighting up all of the buildings) in a perfect reproduction of Harrington’s Pie and Eel Shop, getting splashed with shaving foam and Kensington Gore.
What had happened was unique in the annals of London theatre; Tooting Arts Club had produced ‘Sweeney Todd’ late last year, staging it in a genuine old pie and eel shop in South London before a small, panicked audience.Now the pie shop has been shifted to a skanky former nightclub in the West End that was shut down after a murder. The production is deliberately claustrophobic and pretty scary. It comes courtesy of Stephen Sondheim himself, who was so impressed by the show that he got producer Cameron Mackintosh to find a tiny, tiny space for it in the West End. So you get to eat real pies and see the penny dreadful unfold inches from your terrified eyes as Todd knocks Senor Pirelli’s brains out on your table, rubs miracle elixir into your hair, attacks you and yells at you, making everyone jump out of their skin. There’s intimate site-specific theatre, and then there’s this, which takes it all to a new level.
Jeremy Secomb brings his terrifying sinister thousand-yard stare to the title role, while Siobhan McCarthy is the most mischievous Mrs Lovett I’ve seen in the part since Angela Lansbury on Broadway. Sondheim, the supreme lyricist, has always worked better close-up, particularly in London, but this is in extreme close up. One of his problems has always been that his linguistic complexity and wit is lost in large auditoria. The source material for Sweeney Todd is an old barnstorming Victorian pulp thriller, but Sondheim recognised that it was also a template for an epic Greek tragedy.
Of necessity some cuts have been made, the most painful losses being the large choral arrangements, the arrival of the barber’s chair (there is no chair in this version), Toby’s discovery of what the pies contain (a strange edit of a scene that was always central to the original play) and the removal of the suggestion that Joanna has gone mad in the process of escaping (‘You said you’d marry me Sunday, that was last Whitsun’ is one variation I’ve heard her sing before). Present here is a short but creepy version of the ‘Mea Culpa’ song without the judge’s self-flagellation, a number often cut from more squeamish productions. It is an extraordinary achievement but the venue only seats 32 people, so tickets are currently like gold dust. The good news is that the show has just been extended to run until November.
At close quarters you can hear Sondheim’s lyrics and make new discoveries in the score, played here on a piano, violin and clarinet. The cast, hurtling around us, brought back the story’s Grand Guignol fatalism. They turn cutlery into instruments, hammer, scream and pass away in front of you – if there’s any criticism at all it’s that perhaps a few more quiet moments would have been welcome. But it’s the mark of a powerful work well served by a new vision – and it rinses away the memory of Tim Burton’s flawed, miscast film.