"He trod a path that few have trod/ did Sweeney Todd," we are told in the opening number of the much-produced Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, and this production truly does trod a path that none have before. It was first staged last October in a historic working pie-and-mash shop in Tooting in South London (itself over 100 years old, and still in business under the same family ownership that started it).
Now its West End transfer to a venue on Shaftesbury Avenue - wedged in-between the Gielgud and Queen's Theatre in a former bar that is soon to be re-born as a restaurant, so it can't be here long - sees that pie shop simply lifted, Tardis-like, from Tooting and recreated in every last detail there. For those of us lucky enough to now see it in both locations, it is a breath-taking act of physical transference.
Bill Buckhurst's bold, brave production is part of the current theatrical fashion for site-specific theatre - "performance specifically generated from or for one site", according to one definition - and here the problem of keeping it specific while trying to reach a bigger audience has been overcome by simply recreating the site.
Though the seating capacity has been gently nudged up from the 32 that could be accommodated in Tooting to 69 in town, it's still one of the smallest auditoria in London (and quite a contrast to the London Coliseum, where another production of Sweeney Todd transfers to from New York from March 30, which seats some 2,400 people; it will take nearly 35 performances for this one to be seen by the same number of people as will see a single night at the London Coliseum).
Sweeney Todd has never been this close-up and visceral; murders happen just inches away from us blood-thirsty spectators. (Even the previous smallest production of the show I saw at London's Union Theatre was still performed on a stage, not on and around the tables we are seated at). The production also very cleverly shrinks the cast to a chamber sized eight; but the company offer such full-blooded (in every sense) performances, both vocally and physically, that there seem to be many more actors.
Those actors are spellbindingly led by the broodingly intense Jeremy Secomb in the title role; when he smiles at the curtain call I was genuinely surprised, as I'd not seen his features soften once in the preceding two and a half hours. Meanwhile, Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs Lovett is far warmer - but even more chillingly free of moral compass. (At least Sweeney has a motivation for his murdering instincts - to be avenged on the world that stole his wife from him. Mrs Lovett is purely practical and utterly selfish: she wants Sweeney's approval - and committing these murders enables them to run what she calls at one point 'a respectable business', recycling their victims as meat pies).
They are joined by six stunning actors who bring the rest of this world to life (and death). There are terrific voices all around, including Nadim Naaman and Zoe Doano as the young lovers, Duncan Smith and Ian Mowat at the chief villains, Kiara Jay as the blackmailing Pirelli who turns into Sweeney's first victim, and Joseph Taylor as an adoptive assistant first to Pirelli then to Mrs Lovett.
This production is an absolute must-see. The London Coliseum will have a tough act to match it.
"The recipe is not entirely perfect. The show is sometimes louder and more insistent than it needs to be at such close quarters: more variety of tone would render it the spookier. But, like Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett before them, the company combine thrift, skill and ingenuity to make an irresistible tasty treat."
Sarah Hemming for the Financial Times
"McCarthy shines as the enterprising pie mistress and Jeremy Secomb makes for a magnificently brooding Sweeney."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard