One thing that I will say of every person in Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls is that they are all in need of serious help. I mean this as a bizarre sort of compliment. With sickly pale faces, goggling eyes and vacant smiles, each member of the cast gives the impression of being genuinely disturbed and is so convincing in their characterisation that the audience is completely immersed in the weird and wonderful world of Sweeney Todd.
The level of commitment from the cast is quite remarkable. Sustaining such a high level of believability for ten performances is an impressive feat and in the case of some, the transformation into London-lurking vagabond is so complete that I wouldn’t be surprised if the next few weeks see the cast unwittingly blurting out the occasional jeer in cockney slang or breaking into sinister cackles.
Our guide, Gideon (Dave Spencer), is one such example. Selling us our tickets, he joked confidently with the audience and with his toothless colleague, the endearingly bedraggled Mildred (Charlotte Whistlecroft ). Even when no one appeared to be paying them any attention, the two would mutter absentmindedly to themselves or make morbid jokes about the gruesome events of the hour, refusing to break the illusion that was so effectively created by the cavernous market, the excellent costumes and the generally eerie ambiance.
Certainly, there are some unavoidable implications of performing in the indoor market; the overbearing poster of a woman enjoying her afternoon cup of coffee and the rows of household cleaning items lining the stalls are not quite at home in this recreation of Victorian London’s backstreets. However, the various characters interspersing themselves amongst the promenading audience give plenty of other places to focus attention than on these anomalies.
As the audience wonders around the market, exploring the various corners of the hall and passing sinister looking beggars, raucous prostitutes and lively musicians, the entire cast sings a merry chorus to the accompaniment of a cheerful, folky band. The whole market feels as busy and animated as a city street and the scene is presided over by a drunken Mrs Lovett who sings and waves her skirts about heartily from the balcony.
Idgie Beau’s loud confidence is an effective compliment to the brooding solemnity of her lover, played by Mike Clarke. His Sweeney Todd is unsettlingly sinister. He has the effect of the gradually crescendoing music in a gripping thriller movie; his manner of always staring with almost painful intensity into apparent nothingness leaves the audience in a permanent state of unease, as though he might snap at any moment.
The performance concludes on the market balcony in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. The free pies would make for an effective bribe for unsatisfied audience members had Another Soup Productions’ gamble not paid off, but ultimately they are just the cherry on the cake of a great evening.
The only occasion on which I felt that the energy lagged was when a couple of musicians looking on at the scene in the opticians yawned and started looking around distractedly, and I would have liked to have seen more emotion from the young Marcus when he was finally reunited with his love interest as there was a slight want of chemistry at this climactic moment. Otherwise, individual performances were close to flawless.
My front-row seat in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop ensured my full appreciation of the farcical tango that ended quite abruptly with her murder, but also unwittingly situated me in the firing line when the infamous barber slashed open his own stomach, generating a generous spray of fake blood.
Unfortunately, my favourite coat and my white scarf are now completely covered in essence of Sweeney and so I will be sending Mr Todd my dry cleaning bill, but with it he can also expect my assurances that I would happily visit Fleet Street again in an instant.
Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls is a refreshingly innovative piece of theatre and anyone looking to make a mark on the Durham drama scene should most certainly get in touch with Dave Spencer for a masterclass.
Photographs: Dave Collins