I recently had the utter pleasure of attending The Barnstormer’s (based in Oxted, Surrey) musical production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at one of the most magnificent theatres in the UK: The Minack Theatre. The Minack Theatre, built in 1931 by a woman (Rowena Cade) with a passion, is an extraordinary open-air theatre seating 800 people located on the cliffs of Porthcurno Beach, Cornwall.
Having chosen to attend the performance in support of my sister, Tara Usher, who made and designed the set for this particular show, the experience was not only a proud one; in awe of the magnificent end product she had produced, but also a magical one, owing to the sensual experience of the venue.
One member of the ensemble, Charlotte Faulkes, whose first time it was performing at the theatre said “Performing at the Minack has been an experience unlike anything I’ve ever done before. The incredible venue coupled with the fantastic direction of Paul, Fiona and Richard (and combined ideas of many more) was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.”
Seeing the production of Sweeney Todd for the first time in this venue set a very high standard for any further editions of the show that I see. Due to the open-air structure of the theatre, there was neither a stage curtain or pit to shield the set and 18-piece orchestra (conducted by Steven Geraghty) that joined the cast at the side of the stage. Consequently, the audience were immediately immersed into the story the moment they stepped foot in the theatre. Likewise, the stage entrances and exits took the form of stone steps and doorways either side of the stage, instantly making this a more realistic performance than if performed on a proscenium stage.
The opening of the show saw the majority of the 50-large cast take to the stage in their performance of the production’s prologue ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’. Performers wore makeup (by Neila Dawes) and costumes (designed by Penelope Konstantara) which were crafted carefully to illustrate the contrast in characters, relationships and wealth within the plot. This chaotically genius opening had the additional effect of teleporting its audience back in time to Victorian London, detaching them from the attraction of the modern-day city, and preparing them for the gruesome crimes due to occur throughout the production.
Act 1 offered a superb reenactment of Sweeney Todd’s (played by Shane Perry) past. Notably, Mrs Lovett (Sarah Trotman), in her solo ‘Poor Thing’, tells the tale of the barber Benjamin Barker who fifteen years before had been separated from his daughter and late wife when wrongly imprisoned by the court. During this song, audience members were also led to discover that Mrs Lovett’s latest visitor to her pie shop, Mr Todd himself, was the recently discharged Benjamin Barker. It was at this point that Todd’s desire for revenge was also unveiled when he proclaimed his mission to kill those with a role in his imprisonment and wife’s rumored suicide during the number ‘My friends’.
Throughout the second half of the first act, viewers were introduced to several more of the production’s main characters. These included Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Rachel Kitchen), Johanna’s admirer, Anthony (William Huke), Johanna’s guardian, Judge Turpin (Nick Hertitage), and Turpin’s henchman, Beadle Bamford (Paul Robinson). This group of talented actors presented the aftermath of Barker’s imprisonment; mainly Johanna’s seclusion from the outside world by Turpin who is intent of marrying her. In particular, Rachel and William gave a stunning performance of ‘Kiss Me’ in which their blossoming romance and determination to elope became apparent.
Another memorable performance was that of David Phipps-Davis who played the role of Aldolfo Pirelli, Todd’s Italian hair trimming rival. Pirelli’s extravagance offered a refreshing liveliness to the stage as his operatic tones and striking appearance proved almost the polar opposite of his competitor, Todd, whom he challenges to a public hair shaving competition. Tara Usher, set designer, echoed Pirelli’s diverse character through the nature of his barber shop, a traveler’s caravan on which he addresses himself as the ‘King of Barbers’. Equally, his assistant Tobias Ragg (played by Kaidyn Hinds) is a just as unhealthy contributor to his egotism as later proved when he refuses to leave Mrs Lovett’s pie shop until Pirelli returns to collect him (oblivious to his master’s gruesome murder which occurred in the barber shop upstairs).
When commenting on the creative process of the set production, Tara expressed “Designing for open-air theatre has so many factors that have to be carefully planned for and Sweeney Todd has never been performed at the Minack partially due to this. The story demands a complex and multi-levelled set with contraptions and reveals which is why we made the brave decision to make such a large set which is unusual at the Minack. We started the design process almost a year ago now and have been constantly tweaking it throughout the design and build process. Nonetheless, the build team were outstanding at bringing to life what I envisioned in such a practical (and safe!) way. At the first set model reveal there was a lot of doubts, however in the end absolutely everything worked out as I had imagined, including a fully functional, flat packed gypsy caravan! And, even better, we got it all down the Minack’s steps!”
Act 2 presented the audience with an equally dynamic opening as cast members congregated in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop, expressing their newfound satisfaction for eating her pies with the song ‘God, That’s Good!’ From here the audience were reintroduced to a persistent Anthony, perusing his quest to save Johanna from the malicious and controlling Turpin. Advised by Todd, Anthony prepares his plan to rescue Johanna from the city’s asylum for the insane which is Turpin’s latest method of confinement. Meanwhile, Sarah gave a convincing portrayal of Mrs Lovett’s growing fondness towards Todd in her performance of ‘By the Sea’ in which the two actors manifested a humorous lack of chemistry.
Whilst Act 2 progressed, so did Todd’s murder toll which led to one of the production’s most disquieting moments; Todd’s rational murder of the local beggar woman (played by Sophie Grace). She is not long followed by Todd’s most victorious murder victim, Turpin, who too is killed and sent to the bake house via a trap door. The trap door mechanism was an aspect of creative brilliance on the production team’s behalf. Triggered by a foot pedal at the rear of Todd’s barber chair, his murder victims found themselves transported through a trap door beneath the chair and through a shoot leading to the bake house; ready to be made into Mrs Lovett’s mouthwatering pies.
The final, most heartwarming, scene of the production featured Todd’s discovery that the newly deceased beggar woman was, in fact, his wife. This revelation triggers Todd to turn against Mrs Lovett, furious with her for the misleading lies she told about his family, and devastated with himself for becoming the murderous monster he has.
The production’s 2 hour and 45 minute running time played justice to the darkening plot and motives of its characters. The opening of the production was accompanied by a back drop of the open waters and blue skies belonging to Porthcurno, whilst as the show moved into its second act, the skies moved through sunset and ultimately to darkness in time for the finale. From start to finish, the production proved a masterpiece, showcasing some of the finest performing arts, instrumental, and creative talent. This production of Sweeney Todd, enriched by its enchanting venue, was one of the most enjoyable and addictive pieces of theatre I’ve seen.