Four years ago, Sydney’s New Theatre staged Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
It was rough, immediate, passionate and memorable.
In short, it was everything that this production – a showcase for the talents of National Living Treasure Anthony Warlow – is not.
While this telling of the story of a man bent on revenge is powerfully sung at times and fulsomely orchestrated, it’s also stiff, staid, visually uninteresting and dramatically inert.
You probably know the story even if you’ve never seen the show: Benjamin Barker, barber by trade, was transported for life to Australia by a corrupt judge with designs on Barker’s wife.
After 15 years “rotting in a living hell”, Barker is back in London and in business once again, this time under the nom de guerre Sweeney Todd.
For a few pennies, he’ll pomade your hair, sculpt your muttonchops and trim your moustache. And with a flick of the wrist, he’ll cut your throat.
Sondheim and Wheeler’s combining of Victorian melodrama with lurid violence and warped passion still has the capacity to unsettle audiences 40 years after it was first unveiled. Sweeney’s brand of terrorism – unleashed upon a corrupt judiciary and then on the chattering class whose hypocrisy he despises – should chill us.
But this production, directed by Theresa Borg, blunts Sweeney Todd’s edge with a production as dated and dusty-seeming as a waxwork.
Many will be attracted to this production for the rare opportunity to hear Sondheim’s score played by a full orchestra. They won’t be disappointed. The 20-plus musicians are on stage (under the graceful baton of Vanessa Scammell) and very much part of designer Charlotte Lane’s otherwise underwhelming spectacle.
Even more will be drawn to the show by the presence of Warlow and the chance to see him tackle material commensurate with his talent. They won’t be disappointed either. His is a thoroughly commanding performance, one that transmits all the way to this huge auditorium’s back row (though the circle was empty on this occasion).
Co-star Gina Riley is appealing, too, as the entrepreneurially pragmatic Mrs Lovett, who comes up with a stomach churning recycling scheme for the victims of Sweeney’s class war.
Anton Berezin (the corrupt Beadle Bamford) and Jonathan Hickey (mountebank sidekick Tobias Ragg) contribute strongly. Opera star Daniel Sumegi brings tremendous vocal heft to the role of Judge Turpin.
Tod Strike (stepping in for the advertised Michael Falzon) is very good as rival barber and snake oil salesman Aldofo Pirelli. Owen McCreadie broadcasts the youthful vigour of a panto prince as Anthony, the young man in love with Turpin’s zealously protected ward (Genevieve Kingsford).