Stephen Sondheim’s thrilling musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street returns to the Mother City this March, in an unforgettable intimate and immersive production presented by Abrahamse and Meyer and Tally Ho! Productions at Kalk Bay’s historic Olympia Bakery.
The ghoulish tale of Sweeney Todd, a murderous barber, and his enterprising accomplice, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who bakes the remains of Todd’s victims in her meat pies, then sells them, with great success at her pie shop on Fleet Street to the unsuspecting citizens of London, has captured the popular imagination since it first appeared in 1846 in a serialised penny-dreadful titled, The String of Pearls.
This gripping tale of love, loss, murder, cannibalism, and revenge has inspired several retellings on stage and screen since the 19th century, none more famous and lauded than Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 Tony-Award winning Broadway musical. Generally regarded to be Sondheim’s magnum opus, Sweeney Todd contains some of the most chilling and soaring music ever written for the musical theatre stage.
This new production promises to be one of the most unique and unforgettable stagings of the much-loved musical ever seen in South Africa. This highly immersive production has been conceptualized especially for one of the most unusual, yet popular performance spaces in the Mother City, The Olympia Bakery in Kalk Bay.
Originally built in 1918 as ‘Leslie’s Picture Palace’, the first non-segregated cinema in South Africa, the ‘Picture Palace’ screened silent films to the accompaniment of a live piano over a century ago. Currently the building is home to a functioning bakery by day, then, doubles as a venue for live performance in the evening.
When Stephen Sondheim was asked which genre best described Sweeney Todd he stated: “What Sweeney Todd really is is a movie for the stage.” This quote served as catalyst for the upcoming production. Visually referencing classic silent horror films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari , Häxan  and Nosferatu , films that were most likely screened in ‘Leslie’s Picture Palace’, this production viscerally unfolds the spine-chilling tale of Sweeney Todd amid the paraphernalia of a working bakery encased in the obvious architectural framework of a century old cinema from a bygone era.
Co-producer, Marcel Meyer explains: “It is this confluence of narrative and actual setting that makes this production unique and deepens our understanding of the many layers co-existing and communicating with each other in this production. A fable-like revenge-ritual taking place in a historic cinema that functions as a bakery. A hearth that is simultaneously a hell-mouth where ghosts from the past can, séance like, communicate a cautionary parable of the follies of revenge, speaking profoundly to a contemporary South African audience who, by virtue of our troubled history, are deeply engaged with concepts of injustice, corruption, reparation, retribution, and reconciliation.”
Sondheim also repeatedly stated that he envisaged Sweeney Todd as a chamber piece where actors could comingle with the audience in an environment that blurs the divide between actors and audience. He described his vision as follows: “Smoke, some streetlamps, fog rising from the floor, and somebody would pop up beside you and scare you half to death.”
In keeping with this sentiment, this production features a star-studded ensemble of eight actors playing all the parts in a visually striking production that takes place in and around the audience in the historic bakery. Marcel Meyer (Contested Bodies, Hamlet) leads the ensemble as the brooding barber, with Zoë McLaughlin (Educating Rita, The Last Five Years) as Mrs. Lovett, his pie-baking partner in crime. Graham Bourne (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) takes the part of the villainous Judge Turpin, while Paul Griffiths (Fiddler on the Roof, Mame) plays the Judge’s loyal but morally bankrupt lackey, the Beadle Bamford. Jeani Heyns doubles in the highly contrasting roles of the forlorn Beggar Woman and the haughty Italian barber, Aldolfo Pirelli. Thinus Viljoen (Peter Pan, Hamlet) plays the kindly but simple-minded youth, Tobias. While two sensational new-commers, William Young and Zoë Grey, round-off the cast as the young romantic lovers, Anthony, and Johanna. Multi-award-winning Fred Abrahamse directs, while Maestro Jaco Griessel, musically directs and accompanies the production from his piano, conjuring up the ambiance of the lone pianist at the ‘Picture Palace’ a century ago.
Sweeney Todd runs at the Olympia Bakery from 1 - 24 March. Performances commence at 20:00, Wednesdays to Saturdays with selected Sunday performances.
Because of the immersive nature of the production, seating is extremely limited, and booking is essential. Tickets cost R380 and can be purchased online through Quicket: https://www.quicket.co.za/events/238634-sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street/
Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A Musical Thriller
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Fred Abrahamse
Musical Director: Jaco Griessel
Sweeney Todd: Marcel Meyer
Mrs. Lovett: Zoë McLaughlin
Judge Turpin: Graham Bourne
Beadle Bamford: Paul Griffiths
Beggar Woman/Pirelli: Jeani Heyns
Tobias: Thinus Viljoen
Anthony: William Young
Johanna: Zoë Grey