We love us a bit of site-specific theatre. We’re also almost indecently partial to a pie. So the opportunity to sample both at a staging of Sondheim’s enduring Sweeney Todd in a 100-year-old London pie and mash shop was right up our street. Even if that street was in Tooting.
Not that Tooting is to be sneezed at — whether or not its pies are 'peppered with actual shepherd on top'. The Tooting Arts Club has been mining a professional theatrical seam in the not-quite-Wimbledon suburb since 2011 but this musical — in part supported by a Kickstarter crowdfunding venture which was fully subscribed mostly by locals in six days — is its most ambitious project to date.
When you've seen more than a dozen Sweeney Todds and are perhaps still digesting two or three of them — and with the blockbuster at the Coliseum yet to come — the temptation to get up and demonstrate the finer points of Worst Pies In London is all but overwhelming. Nowhere is it more irresistible than in the extreme visceral intimacy of this setting where you feel a culpable part of the action, the music, and the murder.
One swift lighting cue and the production explodes over and around you like a dangerously hot pie filling. The cast aren't just in your face, they’re stomping on your table, stealing your seat or slaughtering a body shoved up against you. You share the sweat, the spit and the scent of shaving soap. Short of being an extra on Crimewatch it’s hard to imagine how you’d get closer to a faux killing.
It’s also hard to imagine how you’d get closer to the true beating heart of Sondheim’s 'musical thriller'. In Bill Buckhurst‘s ingenious and persistently inventive production, which has neither scenery nor 'apparatus' — and under Benjamin Cox’s almost academic musical direction — the pure accuracy of these singers is a revelation.
Never has the complex counterpoint duet ‘Kiss Me’ where urgent sailor Anthony (deliciously unforced warm and natural tenor from Nadim Naaman) courts virginal Johanna (Sondheim’s unscalable above-the-treble sixteen-year-old soprano given spirited life by Grace Chapman) sounded more precise. When reprised with the Beadle and Judge it’s an even headier mix which is itself worth the slog down the Northern line. Here a word has to be said for Ian Mowat’s outstanding Beadle, by turns greasy and gruesome yet his singing always powerful, supported, and beautifully phrased.
Jeremy Secomb is a brutish and stentorian Todd, although there's less light and shade in his performance than you might want at close range: he never seems to unbend even to Siobhan McCarthy's flirtatious and motherly Mrs Lovett, at her most endearing in the tender Not While I'm Around with a very fine Joseph Taylor as one of the least nauseating Tobias-es we've encountered.
Now the bad news. Sweeney Todd's 40-performance run is already completely sold out, so your only hope is to follow the production on Facebook and hope they find a means to extend, although the venue isn't available and the cast have future commitments in panto season.
However, there are other pie shops and if we might be bold enough to broker an introduction, the cast of Tony Green's equally superb production with David Bedella and Sarah Ingram which opened, and also unfortunately closed, Twickenham Theatre could be interested in further opportunities.
Sweeney Todd continues at Harrington's Pie and Mash Shop, 3 Selkirk Road, Tooting until 29 November 2014 . Returns only.
We saw this production with a complimentary ticket (and pie) provided by Mobius PR.