Sweeney Todd in New York: How Rachel Edwards Brought Her Show To Town
It's a long way from South London's urban, multicultural melting pot district, Tooting, to New York, but the demon barber once traversed the globe, so should we be surprised? Probably, says Gary Naylor, who tracks the production's unlikely journey below.
Round the back of a pub, half a dozen or so concrete cubes faced onto a tiny courtyard. Once they had housed a mini training centre for school leavers with minimal qualifications, but now, with funding choked off by central government policies, they were just dark spaces, wires hanging where electric lights once provided illumination. One had been transformed into a "theatre" (well, it had a few chairs and a couple of lights) and another housed a makeshift bar, where I met Rachel Edwards, founder of Tooting Arts Club, as she was unpacking a few bottles of beer ready to sell to punters before the evening show.
That was nearly five years ago and much has happened to Rachel and to Tooting (whose most famous son is now London's Mayor) since then - and exactly none of it was predictable at all! In that 2012 interview, Rachel (like me, she's lived most of her adult life in Tooting) is already showing the kind of understanding of subject and space that has taken her so far.
"I don't know where Tooting Arts Club goes next. I'm going to do some more reading and seeking out of venues that will make a happy marriage with a play. We'll start with the space - it'd be lovely to come back here - but I don't want to shoehorn a play into a space that doesn't suit it. I'm on the hunt!"
That first production I saw was Barbarians, an unflinching examination of disaffected youth - Barrie Keeffe's Seventies play perfectly timed to raise the kind of issues that the UK's Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's rise to the Oval Office were to throw into sharp focus years later. I reviewed the show in Tooting and, three years later, on its West End transfer to a disused arts college.
If that got Rachel noticed in London (and her energetic 2013 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream further established her credentials as a leader in London's mid-decade craze for site-specific theatre), when she took a deep breath and decided to put up Sweeney Todd in an authentic working London shop, Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop, established in Tooting for over 100 years, well, that was madness wasn't it?
I squeezed into one of the 32 spaces in November 2014 and, like everyone else who saw the show, was blown away (almost literally by Sweeney himself, sliding down my table, knife in hand). London's critics, seldom used to going further south of the river than the National Theatre, were enticed all the way down the Tube's Northern Line to grimy Tooting to see what all the fuss was about - and they were not disappointed.
But, wait a minute, is that Hollywood A-lister James Franco in the shop? And then - who's this bloke dropped by to see how Tooting was doing his show? It couldn't be - but it surely was! I had to resist the temptation to stop people in the street and say "Do you know Stephen Sondheim was here in Tooting last week? Stephen Sondheim!!"
In 2015, Cameron Mackintosh found a spot underground in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the pie shop was re-created, with uncanny fidelity, in the West End, with a few more seats but exactly the same vibe. Rachel had done what she promised in that interview - she had found a venue that made such a happy marriage with the play that the venue kept popping up elsewhere!
There was only one place left to go.
And so, in February (opening on Valentine's Day - a nice touch the Barber himself might have appreciated), Rachel Edwards takes her Sweeney to New York, to the Barrow Street Theatre where, as in Tooting, you can enjoy a pie yourself, before discovering why it tastes so good. It's a story worthy of a show itself, and I consider it a privilege to have seen so much of it at first-hand. Why not have a bite yourself?