Left – Anthony Warlow and Gina Riley. Cover – Anthony Warlow. Photos – Ben Fon
Theatre and concerts feels a little interchangeable at present with high profile theatre performers taking to stadium stages right as high profile pop performers head into theatres. The comparison is not only one of scale but also one of schedule. Short intense runs seem quite a flavoursome formula for producers currently with this reviewer alone being fortunate enough to have now seen two major but minor productions of Sweeney Todd.
The pairing of Anthony Warlow and Gina Riley in Stephen Sondheim’s and Hugh Wheeler’s thrilling musical masterpiece felt as fist pump fabulous as previous ticket purchases to see Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in the same roles at the London Coliseum in 2015 and before that, Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in a more extensive run at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2011.
So, rather than deliberately deafening with the clangs of gratuitous name dropping, (and NO, Angela Lansbury is not on my list) let’s just say I have a somewhat credible curriculum vitae where this show is concerned. Let’s also just say that this hatefully short season by producers TEG Life Like Company, is stunningly comparable with those I have seen before.
Entering Melbourne’s beautiful Her Majesty’s Theatre to be met by the look and scale of Charlotte Lane’s evocative Victorian London set immediately stripped away marketing expectations for this production being ‘concert’ or ‘semi-staged’ This beautiful design delivered additional credence to the very clever device of summoning the tale of Sweeney Todd via the periods favourite pastime, the Séance.
And then this happened.
Met with utter audience rapture, Anthony Warlow’s arrival on stage catapulted the evening into event like territory. This is without question another ‘born to play’ role for one of this country’s finest performers and genuinely leaves previously mentioned versions trailing somewhere far behind. Capturing the torment, humour, masculinity, compassion and understandable criminal insanity of this character makes Sweeney Todd a role plausible only when inhabited by an accomplished actor. Anthony Warlow is indeed that actor and when coupled with that voice, further plaudits really do begin to feel wastefully gushing but this was, without doubt, one of the finest performances I have ever seen in the theatre and it is lamentable indeed that on offer, are so few opportunities to see it.
Upon being offered the role in the original Broadway production, Angela Lansbury is reputed to have said to Stephen Sondheim, "Your show is not called 'Nellie Lovett', it's called 'Sweeney Todd'. And I'm the second banana." While I could clearly continue to scan my reviewer’s lexicon for additional superlatives for Anthony Warlow, I can, assure that I have saved an equal measure for Gina Riley and just like Ms Landsbury herself, she is by no means residing in a fruit bowl. As Mrs Lovett, Gina Riley is extraordinary, infectious, hilarious perfectly compelling and nothing short of fabulous. Despite her absence from the show’s title, Mrs Lovett is arguably its most evil creation. Driven by self-service over any more noble compulsion to right past wrongs, the comic genius of Riley is a perfect contrast to her characters revoltingly sociopathic agenda. An absolute privilege to watch and, as noted of her recent outstanding turn as Lady Markby in MTC’s An Ideal Husband, she continues to edge ever closer to cementing her national treasure status.
The pairing of these two incredible performers feels obvious to the point of logical and I absolutely imagine that the joy they have brought to audiences is matched only by the joy they have brought to the geniuses who cast them.
Sweeney Todd can easily feel like a showstopping two hander, but it is of course a masterpiece of a musical revered for over 40 years. While there were many wonderful moments beyond those of the leads in this production, I cannot pass up an opportunity to make a massive mention of Jonathan Hickey. With an utterly stunning voice, his heart breakingly committed portrayal of Toby was simply outstanding – what an absolute pleasure to hear this man sing.
On a slightly less favourable note, it has to be noted that sharing a stage with a leading man whose impeccable diction means you can hear and understand his every syllable does have its down side. Sondheim is noted for complexity and in particular, for his clever and wordy phrasing, and unfortunately it can unravel a performance no matter how good the voice. Diction is imperative in Sondheim and not being able to understand more than one of the principles at times was incredibly disappointing and somewhat surprising given the calibre of casting.
That said, this production is significantly bigger and better than it seemed to promise in promotion and abundant credit is due to both the full and very strong company and creative team for an astonishingly enjoyable production I feel genuinely privileged to have attended.
TEG Life Like Company presents
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book Hugh Wheeler
Director Theresa Borg
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 20 – 23 June, 2019