“Did you come here for a pie sir?”
Tucked away in an unassuming side street in Tooting, Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop has incredibly been serving the locals for 106 years – a venerable local institution and now the location for a strikingly unique interpretation of Sondheim’s masterly Sweeney Todd. With room for just 32 inside, Bill Buckhurst’s production for Tooting Arts Club is shockingly intense, literally so given the constricted space and the predilection of the performers to jump up on the tables, get right in our faces or even rub a dab of some hair tonic in the case of one noted critic- this sure ain’t for the fainthearted.
As the company of eight command us to attend the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street (well, Selkirk Road actually!), there’s no escaping the compact world that they create but it is hard to imagine that you’d want to. It’s like a concentrated shot of musical theatre perfection, the operatic scale of the show distilled into an almost personal experience and led by the magisterial, menacing presence of Jeremy Secomb’s Sweeney whose eyes bore unblinkingly into the very soul, the intelligence of this immersive production shines throughout.
Not only allowing Secomb to verbally and vocally accost us up close and personal, the intimacy of the venue also works perfectly in suggesting Todd’s delusions of grandeur. One perfectly realised moment sees him leap on to a table, dramatically uplit by Amy Mae Smith’s highly theatrical lighting for a grandstanding finale to a song, only for the mood to be brilliantly punctured by an unconvinced Mrs Lovett who is just the other side of the counter, sweeping up offcuts with a sceptical raised eyebrow. Siobhán McCarthy is just marvellous in the role, wryly comic and passionately forthright, she sounds like a (twisted) dream and looks stunning.
And there’s something undeniably thrilling about experiencing the score at such close quarters – Kiara Jay doubles ingeniously as the Beggar Woman and a full-throated Pirelli, the precision of her vocal quite thrilling. The yearning passion of Anthony and Johanna’s ‘Kiss Me’ sounds beautiful in Nadim Naaman and Grace Chapman’s hands but becomes something transcendental in its reprise as a quartet with Ian Mowat’s Beadle and Duncan Smith’s Turpin – Ben Cox’s musical direction is inspired throughout, his talented band of three supplemented by occasional percussion from the cutlery and bottles lying around.
With the performers so in yer face, Buckhurst wisely dials back on too much extraneous detail and in some ways, the red glare and piercing whistle that accompanies the deaths is more shocking than any gush of stage blood. Simon Kenny’s design makes great use of the different levels available – counter top, table top, internal staircase, every nook and cranny is utilised somehow to great effect. The nomadic Tooting Arts Club really have hit onto a winner here – a perfect marriage of material and location and one which feels an integral part of the community in which it is immersed (the box office and eerily lit bar are located across the street in a proper barbershop). Twickenham did it well, Tooting does it better – ENO, the ball is very much in your court.