Sweeney Todd is the wronged barber sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude in the colonies on a trumped-up charge by a lascivious judge who has taken a fancy to the barber’s young pretty wife. Having managed to escape, the former barber returns to London to hear that his wife is dead and their daughter, now about to turn 16, has been kept by the judge, imprisoned in his house as a ward of court. Fifteen years of pent up rage at the injustice done to him spill over into unrestrained anger at the injustice and wickedness of the world. In search of vengeance, he enters into his famous gruesome partnership with Mrs Lovett, the pie maker, whereby he barberously (sic) slaughters the wealthy men of London upstairs with his razor, and she grinds their flesh into meat for her pies in the basement beneath.
Sweeney Todd is described as a “musical thriller” but the words “musical” and “thriller” each seem too light to describe the intense, dark, deeply disturbing and powerful production we attended at the Old Fire Station last night. It emphasised the religiosity of the work, the struggle between good and evil. Sweeney Todd’s god is a “dark and hungry god”, an Old Testament god. Sweeney Todd has come to deliver divine retribution. Judge Turpin also plays god in his courtroom. Sweeney Todd and Judge Turpin are both seen wrestling with their demons, but allowing evil to win. Mrs Lovett, by contrast, is portrayed in this production not as the usual knowing woman, but as glibly making light of the consequences of her nefarious career. This Sweeney Todd is not just a thrilling gothic horror story. There are big themes here: abuse of power, suppression of truth, man’s inhumanity to man only a step away from man eating man.
Jake Jones is very scary and alarmingly convincing as the sanctimonious, self-righteous, hypocritical Judge Turpin, flagellating himself with his own trouser belt as he lusts paedophilically after his young pretty ward. Joshua Kerr is very, very scary and terrifyingly compelling as Sweeney Todd, overtaken by a wild fanaticism, a manic gleam in his eye as his arm becomes “whole again” when he takes up his razor. There was a discernible ripple of terror through the audience, holding its collective breath, as he wielded the blade at us. Using the Old Fire Station as a venue brought the action so close to the audience, we felt we really did “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”.
The whole drama was utterly gripping and spellbinding: so fast and tight, not a moment wasted, every ensemble member a character, every character magnetic, with too many excellent cameo performances to single out one without singling out all.
Dexter Drown has once again excelled as Musical Director, this time with the added challenge of having half of his fabulous orchestra on each balcony. The make-up and choreography were also superb.
With each passing year, the annual RicNic musical theatre offering stands out more prominently as a must-see in the Oxford theatrical calendar. There is so much talent in the young team. RicNic is unusual in that not only the cast, but the entire production team are young people aged 16-21, cutting their teeth as choreographers, producers, set designers, etc and they all pull together to create an amazingly profession production.