Left – Anthony Warlow. Cover – Gina Riley and Anthony Warlow. Photos – Ben Fon
In Sydney for only a brisk 6-show engagement, Life Like Company’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we have a terrific cast headed by stage musical legend Anthony Warlow in his “dream role” as the serial-killing razorman, with TV comedy star Gina Riley as his pie-cooking accomplice. On the other hand, this is a production that suffers from some decidedly unambitious staging and a distinctly unflattering venue.
This is presumably the first theatrical production of this kind in what appears to be a recently opened multi-purpose performance space, the unsigned, difficult-to-find ICC Darling Harbour Theatre (easily confused with the ICC Sydney Theatre nearby). Possibly better suited to large-scale lectures, conference presentations, screenings or even music recitals, this antiseptically corporate-looking venue feels like the antithesis of a place for showcasing art and storytelling. With its cavernous, airport-like foyers, a proportionally small stage area, and awkward auditorium exits flanking the stage which remain illuminated throughout the performance, the theatre itself has little to recommend it other than extremely polite ushers.
Without being able to compare this to the Melbourne season, it is hard to know if the awkwardness of the staging is the fault of the venue, its status as a rapid-turnaround touring production, design and directorial shortcomings, or all of the above. The simple fact of the matter is that this is an unimpressive staging of the beloved gothic melodrama, with a very limited and frankly cheap-looking set where a solid third of it taken up by situating the orchestra onstage.
The most obvious of these shortcomings is the realisation – or rather, lack thereof – of the iconic barber’s chair mechanism that drops Todd’s victims down a trapdoor into Mrs. Lovett’s bakehouse. It is a gimmick central to just about every iteration of the Demon Barber’s mythology, yet is rendered here as merely a swiveling chair from which the “dead” victims simply stand up with their backs to the audience and lamely walk offstage, as though ghosts. I can say with no exaggeration that I have seen community theatre and university drama society productions of Sweeney Todd which have done a better job of achieving this key technical feature of the stage action.
It is not just the chair, either. Blood effects are inconsistently utilised and ineffective when applied, Johanna’s window and Mrs. Lovett’s oven doors look like they were pinched from a fairytale pantomime, and the doubling of Pirelli’s storefront for an entrance to the madhouse is, frankly, laughable. If all of these issues had been overshadowed with particularly inventive or energetic choreography one could, perhaps, turn a blind eye, but even those elements are merely adequate at best.
I rarely nitpick issues of staging in a review, but for a production of this scale and, frankly, ticket price, one feels beholden to address this as distinctly substandard, and unworthy of the talent involved.
For indeed, the whole ensemble is strong, with a powerful chorus delivering chilling reprises of the recurring “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” theme throughout, opening and closing the whole show with gusto. Genevieve Kingsford, Daniel Sumegi and Tod Strike are all very solid in their respective roles, while Jonathan Hickey and especially Owen McCredie impress with particularly powerful turns as Tobias and Anthony, despite being typically the blandest characters in the story.
Gina Riley may not be stunning in terms of vocal power, but her characterisation of Mrs. Lovett is delightfully on point and more than compensates. Riley contributes not only her renowned comic timing to the role, but also some requisite pathos, excelling in the cannibalistic baker’s more human moments as she tries to gain the affections of the brooding and single-minded Todd.
Although beset by some technical issues with the sound mix underserving his powerful baritone at times, Anthony Warlow is everything you could want in the title character. A dark, threatening stage presence, his hulking Todd is palpably filled with seething rage and cruel whimsy, all roiling behind perpetually glaring eyes. Warlow projects an aching undercurrent of sympathetic motives that have curdled into an abject misanthropy, twisting a persecuted man from victimhood into a victimiser himself, with nostalgia for his lost family and a morbid sense of humour furnishing his few lighter moments.
Together, Warlow and Riley make for the great double act that is essential for any production of Sweeney Todd to have a hope of working. They project a wickedly delightful chemistry, particularly in the infamous dark-comedy duet in which they hit upon the idea of converting the cadavers, produced by Todd’s tonsorial murders, into filling for the meat pies in Mrs. Lovett’s ailing business downstairs.
This show features a great cast in an unambitious production of a classic musical in an awful theatre. It may not be the ideal rendition of Sweeney Todd, but the deliciously good still outweighs the devilishly mediocre.
TEG Life Like Company presents
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
by Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler.
Director Theresa Borg
Venue: Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney
Dates: 13 – 16 June 2019
Also performing 20 – 23 June, Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne