The New Theatre hit pay dirt when new director on the local scene, Giles Gartrell-Mills put out the call for his cast for the last play of the New's season, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ because a heck of a lot of talent answered that call.
Perhaps it’s the lure of doing Sondheim for the talented ensemble they finally assembled but after a relatively good year, this is the show that will definitely fill the theatre with much kudos, cheer and hopefully cash. Given that acting in a New Theatre show is an act of love (ie- it ain’t a paid gig baby), from the opening moments, between the chipping paint and giant cockroaches scuttling to get in on the action, the wave of talent on stage smashes its audience in the face and we are sold on sitting through the next almost three hours with heady anticipation.
For those unfamiliar with ‘Sweeney Todd’, it is based on Christopher Bond’s play from a classic Victorian melodrama and converted into music, lyrics and libretto by Sondheim and Wheeler. It tells the story of our anti-hero, barber Benjamin Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd (Justin Cotta) who has returned to London after being unfairly transported to Australia fifteen years earlier, and rescued by sailor Anthony Hope (Josh Anderson) to seek revenge on the man who sent him there, Judge Turpin (Byron Watson). Of course, revenge is sweetest when it involves a companion, Mrs Lovett (Lucy Miller) to help you kill everyone who ever hurt you and anyone else whose cut of their jib sends your razor into a frenzy, and hell, while you’re on a killing spree, you may as well take economic advantage of it and thus Mrs Lovett’s pie shop is the perfect outlet to dispose of those bodies.
This play has genuinely funny moments, executed with great skill by its cast. It’s a tight, polished and energetic production and given I’d heard rumours of diva antics and clashing personalities in rehearsals, I was thrilled to see that none of that was evident in the show itself now it has an audience to channel its tempestuous tantrums. And it’s no secret that I’d rather have day surgery than sit through a musical but in ‘Sweeney Todd’ there’s a lovely variety in humour, drama and spectacle that keeps its audience entertained from start to finish and Sydney has convinced me that the quality of musical theatre has come a long way with companies like Squabbalogic raising the bar and now New Theatre's 'Sweeney Todd'.
Gartrell-Mills has created a series of impressive moving stage pictures in using Trent Kidd’s choreography and portable platforms on an encompassing dingy brown backdrop of Victorian London. Lighting designer Liam O’Keefe plays with the shadows of the characters through some interesting side-lighting and the dirt and grime of this city, referenced in one of the opening songs, resonates in its setting and costumes (Brodie Simpson).
But the real talent is in its cast. Justin Cotta, has mastered the art of playing a crazed maniac, perhaps not always contained to the stage but in ‘Sweeney Todd’ it has such energy and passion that even though it feels slightly over-cooked at times, I can’t think of any other role where it’s wholly appropriate than here. He is well worth watching.
Other very notable mentions include Lucy Miller, whose comic timing as Mrs Lovett is impeccable. Miller has a terrific range but this is one of the strongest performances I’ve seen her give and she manages to manipulate the audience with her cheekiness, vulnerability and determination in role. Josh Anderson’s sweet melodic voice was one of the strongest in clarity and tone and his heroic and naïve Hope was well-matched in Jamie Leigh Johnson’s Johanna Barker, his love interest in the play. Byron Watson managed to evoke both disgust and lust, Courtney Glass as Beggar Woman captured the comedy and pathos but for me the stand out of the entire show with Miller is Simon Ward as Beadle Bamford. Ward fleshes out Bamford in accent, arrogance and action like a professional who’s been playing this role on stage for years. His control and timing take one of the smaller roles of the show and make him larger than life.
Although there are times in ‘Sweeney Todd’ when the lyrics get lost in clarity, it’s a tiny flaw in an excellent show. The supporting ensemble hammer it home, the music is well-executed and if you’re not devoured by the taped-up last-legs of the audience seats or knocked over by the killer cockroaches slowly eating their way through the women’s bathroom or hit accidently by a falling pastizzi post show by my friend Paula, this will be a highlight of your 2014 theatrical calendar. Don’t miss it. You don’t normally get to see theatre this good for these prices.