Review: SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – 40th Anniversary Australian Production

2 years ago
Declan Dowling

I daresay I wish the $224.50 ticket price covered the cost of a razor for members of the audience to slit their own throats during this trainwreck of a production. You may argue that this is a bit harsh – after all the billing of TEG’s 40th Anniversary Production of this Steven Sondheim’s Masterwork boasts headlining Australian theatre legend Anthony Warlow as Sweeney Todd, and Gina Riley as his Gruesome accomplice Mrs. Lovett. But it was the “direction” provided by Theresa Borg that drove this production so far into the icy depths of despair that not even the vocal splendour of Mr. Warlow could reprieve it.

Ms. Borg, whose previous 20 directorial credits include Sesame Street Presents: Elmo’s Super Fun Hero Show, Scooby Doo Live! and 18 other family musicals, seems to have lucked out when landing the role of director for this monumental and grizzly show – but it’s there her luck stops. Between the framing device of a 19th century séance, which added nothing to the story apart from confusion to first time viewers of Sweeney Todd around me, and staging that obstructed the view of important moments happening so far upstage audience members in the front row needed opera glasses to see what was going on, it became clear that Ms. Borg understood neither the piece nor the fundamentals of stagecraft. I might also add that mentioning topical issues such as abortion and suffrage in your director’s notes that don’t even vaguely relate to your direction – no matter how many parallels you draw – doesn’t count as good directing…

Musically the evening was stunning. Vanessa Scammell led performers and musicians alike into the grandeur of Sondheim’s score without flaw. Mr. Warlow’s rendition of ‘My Friends’ even went so far as to render tears in the eyes of this reviewer with its sheer perfection, as he displayed impeccable vocal control and a resonating timbre that even challenged the definitive version as sung by George Hearn. Gina Riley would have made an absolutely charming Mrs. Lovett if she came out of her shell a little more, although the glimpses we got of the comic flair she brought to the role were utter brilliance.

Either way it would have been nice if she and other members of the cast could remember their lines. Sweeney Todd is like Shakespeare, such a classic is it that when words are forgotten it is instantly noticeable. Surprisingly even Mr. Warlow was not free of the ‘forgetfulness-plague’ that seemed to haunt every member of the cast, mixing and matching sections of verses to the “Johanna Quartet”. Perhaps a longer rehearsal period would have resolved such issues. The rest of the cast included the flawless Genevieve Kingsford as Johanna, the sinister and at times quite humorous ‘stock character’ portrayal of Judge Turpin by Daniel Sumegi and Owen McCredie whose impressive vocal skills masked his monotone yelling of every unsung line he delivered.

The Victorian mansion set design by Charlotte Lane, although visually pleasant, left one wanting both more and at times less. The clumsy movement of unnecessary set pieces downstage of the actors was distracting at the best of times, and this, in conjunction with the disappointing barber’s chair that flung victims into a gentle walk off stage, was less than satisfying and made one feel like you were watching a first dress rehearsal with an amateur company. Although it can be said that Sweeney’s entrance through the ‘trick’ séance table was a spectacular way to open an otherwise disappointing framing device.

I think this production can be summed up nicely by a comment made to me in satire by my companion for the evening: “This Anthony Warlow is great, he could really make something of himself if he ever got out of these amateur productions…”

Sweeney Todd played at the Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney, until June 16. It plays Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on June 20-23.

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