I was talking to a friend of mine last week, who was working as one of the technicians for Sweeney Todd, who told me that the show contained over 300 lighting cues, significant numbers of sound cues, an absurd number of costumes, a strong makeup department, as well as a full orchestra pit. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, when I say that Sweeney Todd cannot be done by a uni troupe perfectly. Resource restrictions dictate that it can’t be. But it is shocking, in the way that many St Andrews productions often are, that this production of Sweeney got as close as it did. Warts and all, Sweeney Todd was an example of what a great show in the Byre can be.
Sweeney Todd lives and dies with its ability to create atmosphere, and this production did an exceptional job of it. While the stage felt empty at times, an overall visual sense of foreboding was crafted by the harsh scaffolding, the lighting, and of highest note, the makeup. Somewhere in between the exaggerated qualities of the Tim Burton film and a more functional, theatrical design, the makeup made each of the characters feel as if they had a deadline- that their lives were only ever temporary. Further praise needs to go to the costume design- it’s hard to costume a cast this big, but to ensure every character has a unique, impressive design that feels contemporary is even more impressive. These aspects all tie into each other, making the “great black pit,” of London feel ever blacker and ever deeper, and makes Sweeney’s campaign to end it feel alive.
Speaking of the Demon Barber himself, this play was dominated by its leading couple of Duncan Bristow as Sweeney Todd and Alice Gold as Mrs. Lovett. Watching them on stage was like watching a dance, a gentle push and pull between the script’s wildly different tones. For every moment of Alice bringing pieces of wild, bawdy humor to the stage, Duncan’s cold, brooding stare would pull you back and remind the audience that this play was, after all, about a serial killer. And while the level of acting was high across the board, especially from Coggin Galbreath and Andrew Mundy, there was no doubting that it was this pair that dominated the stage when they were on it. It’s the relationship between these two that emphasized, to me, what made this production work – balance. Sweeney is a tonally variant script, and keeping those elements, the horror and the humor, in balance, is difficult. And while there were moments that balance was lost, it never ceased to be entertaining.
The biggest flaws in this show come down to, unfortunately, a lack of resources. As mentioned, the stage did feel bare, and much of the iconic imagery of Sweeney Todd – the Oven, the Chair, the Grinder – were all either missing or executed strangely. This is a reality that every St Andrews production faces, but they’re felt doubly in Sweeney because of how iconic all of these pieces are, and how busy the stage is meant to feel. Furthermore, this lack of resources meant that the murders felt underperformed, with none of the gruesomeness that makes Sweeney’s misanthropy feel truthful.
This does not mean that Sweeney was any less exceptional and that it did not more than exceed my expectations. For any St Andrews production of a high budget, epic story to succeed at all should be impossible, and Sweeney showed that it isn’t. Imperfect though it was, Sweeney Todd was one of the most exceptionally fun nights I’ve had in St Andrews in a long time, and its team should be more than proud of that.