The Many Lives of Sweeney Todd
An odd little play that was reborn in Tooting, South London, has now become a hit in New York, set in a perfect reproduction of Harrington’s Pie and Eel Shop, where the audience gets splashed with shaving foam and Kensington Gore.
Tooting Arts Club produced ‘Sweeney Todd’ late last year, staging it in a genuine old pie shop before a small, panicked audience. The production was deliberately claustrophobic and scary. It came courtesy of the writer himself, and you got 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.
Mr Todd’s story got its Grand Guignol fatalism back. And so his long, strange journey from Fleet Street to Manhattan and back is complete. But how did a pulp novel become an urban legend?
Sweeney Todd came to life in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance, published in 18 weekly parts in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical and Family Library, in 1847. It was probably written by James Rymer but several others helped. The gruesome tale of the barber and his wife turning people into pies touched a nerve, and before the serial was even completed it had been adapted as a melodrama for the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton. From this show we get Todd’s once-famous catchphrase, ‘I’ll polish ‘im off.’
The story was published in book form in 1850 as The String of Pearls, and was now 732 pages long, and filled with so much melodrama that it was boring. An illegally pirated version appeared in America (a common problem for books and plays then), cementing its mythology. By this time Todd was becoming a bogeyman used to terrify children. There are two reasons for this – first, there was a vague, universal version of the story that had been floating around London forever, and this was a coalescence of the various notions. Second, the original authors put a preface to the book claiming it was true, just as Dennis Wheatley used to for his witchcraft novels, and the play said it was founded on real events. All utter tosh, but it felt right. It was a time of bogeymen.
There were five film versions, the most famous being ‘Sweeney Todd; The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ starring the ludicrous, eye-rolling Tod Slaughter, who carried on touring the production live on stage for decades. My father recounted seeing him at the Deptford Empire, along with Maria Marten; Or the Mystery of the Red Barn. In the 1950s the composer Malcolm Arnold even turned it into a ballet.
It took playwright Christopher Bond to upend the whole myth in the seventies, turning Todd into an anti-hero sent into a murderous rage by the rape of his wife. Now the tale made sense to a modern world. Sweeney’s transformation was completed, and he had joined the small select group of characters who have successfully erased the lines between fact and fiction, like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Jack the Ripper, despite being real, also crossed into millions of fictional versions.
The bogeymen now are more insidious. They come from urban legends spun around your computer, children at school, politicians. Into this world Donald Trump arrives as a more old-fashioned throwback to a simpler time, when men were dangerous because they were greedy.