by Jerric Chong
Of the many celebrated musicals penned by the late Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street doubtless stands out with its lurid and gritty depiction of 19th-century London. Inspired by Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’, it tells the story of the convicted barber’s return and thirst for vengeance against Judge Turpin, who unjustly transported Todd to Australia for 15 years, ravished his wife Lucy, and adopted his daughter Johanna. Descending into madness and misanthropy, Todd resolves to kill all his clients with a slit of his razor, disposing of the corpses in Mrs Lovett’s meat pies sold downstairs.
Sweeney Todd is indisputably a challenging musical to stage successfully, and even more so in the thick of a prevailing public-health crisis, which led to many cast and crew absences leading up to the performances as coronavirus cases climbed in Oxford. Nevertheless, the company rose admirably to the unprecedented occasion, accomplishing one of the most enjoyable student productions I have had the pleasure of attending – and certainly the finest since the advent of the pandemic – under the leadership of director (and Orielensis) Imogen Albert, with producer Harvey Dovell of 00Productions.
The characters of Sondheim’s musical are irreducibly multifaceted and psychologically complex, but the cast delivered most exceptionally, with each role played with flair, musicality, and close attention to evolving relationships and character arcs. Daniel McNamee undeniably stood out for a dramatic portrayal of Sweeney Todd, exemplifying adroitly varying interactions with other characters on stage as he sinks into a demoniacal murder spree, while Maggie Moriarty was in her element playing Mrs Lovett both slatternly in the first act and kempt in the second. I was also struck by Gracie Oddie-James’s frenzied Beggar Woman and Molly Jones’s convincing Toby. Acting as a Greek chorus, the ensemble (including Oriel’s Saskia Jamieson Bibb) fulfilled a variety of roles with great vigour. Additionally to be commended is Peter Todd, who was not only an ensemble member but stepped in as Anthony for one performance at short notice due to unforeseen circumstances.
Despite the serious themes that Sweeney Todd explores, Sondheim imbues needed humour into the musical; nowhere else was this more apparent than with McNamee and Moriarty’s comedic interactions in ‘By the Sea’. The band, directed by Isaac Adni, provided an impeccable accompaniment to the acting, underscoring every moment of a musical that is mostly sung-through. The ravishing duet ‘Kiss Me’, sung by Cormac Diamond (Anthony) and Hannah O’Sullivan (Johanna), was another highlight. Dialogue was generally clear, and any deviations from Sondheim’s original were thankfully slight.
Credit must also be due to the following Orielenses, in no particular order besides alphabetical: Harry Baigent (percussion), Della Darvill (welfare officer), Dowon Jung (marketing and set assistant), Max Penrose (co-choreographer), Katie Rennie (videography), and Tom Wild (trumpet). Their pivotal efforts, in concert with dozens of others’, contributed to an especially successful production that overcame what must have been immense challenges to pull off a show that now stands as a testament to what a group of dedicated students can achieve even in the midst of extraordinary obstacles, and moreover to the recovery and renewal of the cultural sector as we gradually make our way out of the pandemic; the show was played to a practically full house throughout its run and was rightly acclaimed with standing ovations. Rather than ‘a hole in the world like a great black pit’, then, the light at the end of the coronaviral tunnel is certainly bright.
Sweeney Todd ran from Wednesday 2 February to Saturday 5 February at the Oxford Playhouse.