BWW Reviews: SWEENEY TODD, Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop, November 4 2014
Nestling between some of the best Asian restaurants in London, but three times as old and half their size, stands Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop. It's been there for 106 years (which is 105 years longer than Tooting has been burdened with the soubriquet "The New Shoreditch") and not much has changed on the inside. Oh, just across the street from Harrington's, there's a barber's shop too. Well, who could resist that arrangement? Not Rachel Edwards, founder of Tooting Arts Club, who has been producing award-winning theatre embedded within her local community since 2011.
So the set-up is perfect, the right people signed on the dotted line and there's enough money to make the dream a reality, but is it all just a clever gimmick, the theatrical equivalent of running a marathon in a suit of armour - an admirable but unnecessarily difficult means to an end? This is the point at which theatre must transcend space and stage - and it does, magnificently so.
Director Bill Buckhurst has turned his narrow strips of lino, his formica table tops and his staircase to the unseen upper floor into a claustrophobic, asphyxiating den that summons the Victorian Fleet Street, a street in which a barber worked above a pie shop and its bakehouse. We feel the action as much as see it - immersion theatre with a small "i". Amy Mae-Smith's lighting, the simplicity of which belied both its power in creating atmosphere and its technical mastery, plays a huge part in the show's palpable theatricality.
Still, the pie shop is no cakewalk for the actors, but all eight of the ensemble rise to the challenge from the moment they mount the tables to implore us the "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Tood" to their bows in a space barely big enough for them to line-up.
Jeremy Secomb's Sweeney scowls and grins with malevolent intent, often looking like Martin Amis trying, for once, to write a fully realised female character. This Sweeney burns all day, every day with rage, seldom so much as acknowledging Mrs Lovett's amoral methods and romantic dreams. Siobhan McCarthy delivers a memorable pie-maker, getting her full quota of laughs, but narrowing her eyes into the grim ruthlessness that has always driven her when her position is threatened. It's a scary, sexy, sordid Mrs Lovett.
Though every part is perceptively cast and perfectly played, Joseph Taylor as Tobias Ragg (and something of a compere) is winningly naive and Ian Mowat is as oily a Beadle Bamford as one could ever hope (or fear) to see. Grace Chapman and Nadim Naaman as the young lovers, sing well, their voices bouncing off the shop's hard surfaces giving the thrill of close-up vocals an extra dimension. Rounding off the group, Duncan Smith is a grotesque Judge Turpin and Kiara Jay a hopelessly outgunned Pirelli and Beggar Woman, whose soprano soars round the room.
Seldom can so awkward a project have been realised so fully. Of course, Stephen Sondheim's immortal words and melodies and Hugh Wheeler's blackest comedy book are some of musical theatre's most lauded raw materials, but this most unlikely staging delivers all that one expects from a Sweeney - and then some. With the run sold out and notices piled high with stars, one can only hope that this unique production returns to Tooting soon - and when it does, grab a ticket as soon as you can!