Sweeney Todd, originally directed by Harold Prince and arranged by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, has been adapted for the Perth stage by The West Australian Opera Company. The story revolves around a cannibalistic barber in London during the middle of the industrial revolution. This is a story that investigates the power distribution in a time when very few chose the fate of many. Todd’s fate is trying to make up for a past he felt was stolen from him by illegitimate powers, in his case, the ever-present Judge Turpin. The well-rounded cast is accompanied by a comprehensive creative team made for an experience that balances the comic with the macabre.
Ben Mingay is the perfect choice for the gruff Sweeny Todd. With the figure of an ex-construction worker, he seems accustomed to the astute distance and humour from death that is required from the role. His comic timing and physicality contribute to the scenes, but sometimes falls short when he needs to invest in the emotion of the scene. It is possible he sacrifices stage presence for singing quality, as he sings every song with such vigour and believability that his gravelly, ogre-like voice lands equally on everyone in the audience. By the end of the song ‘Epiphany’, the audience was struck.
While Mingay’s temperament and stage presence might be lacklustre at times, Antoinette Halloran as Mrs Lovett makes up for it. With her use of props and setting, her character’s intentions are made clear before they are audibly articulated. This is evident during the scenes operated between the levels of the set, holding a stillness––not a stiffness––as the rest of scene happens around, above or below her, before adding Mrs Lovett’s chirpy dialogue. This is a creative element that lifts the mood of murder.
James Clayton has the difficult task of playing a villain who has fallen in love with his stolen daughter. Mid-play there is a scene depicting him whipping himself over his unnatural desires. This is exemplified by the amusing numbers each side of this interlude. A memorable comic actor was Paul O’Niell as Adolfo Perrelli, the street worker. His interlude introduces possibly one of the most significant members of the cast. Joshua Reckless plays the childlike Tobias Ragg. With an astounding vocal range and the capacity to change his character so significantly through the few appearances he makes in the story, Reckless’ performance is significance to the climax of the play. Combined with musical talent and commitment, it looked as if each actor was invested and enthusiastic with their performance.
As always, creativity does not start and end with the performers. The ingenuity of a cube-like structure as a rotating multi-storied set makes the play simple to follow, as well as contributing the famous, and sometimes hilarious, body dumping trick. The several levelled entrances make the scene transitions barely noticeable and have the chorus filling the stage in no time. As the play continues there are more elements introduced as part of the set that would have otherwise been overlooked. The furnace has always been on side stage under Johanna’s balcony, but if they do not open it would be hard to see as a setting device. However, the many gaps left either side of the cube became evident and distracting in scenes with seated characters and still within the cube, a blocking issue that would have been easily overlooked. In addition, the lighting director contributes to the mood of every scene. The use of gelled lighting to create a setting is particularly effective, especially when altering the psychological setting of the scene.
Universally, The West Australian Opera is musically flawless. It is not often an extensive musical endeavour goes without a noticeable hiccup or two. In this show I saw nothing, instead, I was completely immersed in the flow of the narrative. While this means the singers are astounding with their range and agility in the varied score, the orchestra hidden under His Majesty’s Theatre stage is integral to the character and plot developments through trills and piercing interjections.
Overall, this is a fantastic production of the classic musical and makes for a great introduction for anyone who claims to hate musicals. Sweeney Todd covers the dark realities of life, from cannibalism to lust and from the power divide to retribution, all the while maintaining a sense of ‘gallows humour’.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is on show at His Majesty’s Theatre until July 20th! For more information and tickets head to the Perth Theatre Trust website.