Image credited to 00Productions.

It is rare that a performance so haunting and gruesome can warm the heart in the same way as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With its melancholy chords and subtle emotional passages that seep into all the crevices of the auditorium, it is a musical unlike any other. With Sondheim’s recent passing, it was truly fitting to pay such a timeless homage to his talents. 00Productions’ rendition of the classic brilliantly captured every facet of Sondheim’s genius.

No hesitation was made in foreshadowing the disturbing tale about to unfold. The excitable chatter rippling through the Oxford Playhouse was extinguished in a split second by the thoroughly unexpected yet evocative opening harmonies. The talent of musical director Isaac Adni and his musicians was clear. The blaring volume of the score admittedly sometimes overshadowed the dialogue, but I can’t think of an occasion where tension was developed with such bravado and sophistication.

This atmosphere was brilliantly sustained by the strength of the ensemble. Their meticulous individual characterisation ensured the stunning sense of unease never faltered; never allowing their lack of named role to detract from their performance. They took each observer by the hand and I was eager to be guided through their grisly narrative.

The eponymous character, masterfully portrayed by Daniel McNamee, radically surpassed all expectations. His abundance of vocal talent was perfectly complemented by outstanding emotional execution. The subtle yet constant anguish in his eyes allowed Sweeney’s hardship to radiate through the performance space. Beneath the dextrous hands of a gruesome killer was something enigmatic, something fundamentally human. It was beautifully troubling to witness.

McNamee’s interactions with Maggie Moriarty’s Mrs Lovett were dynamic and wildly entertaining. Moriarty captured Lovett’s cynicism with a grounding sense of candour, and her artfully humorous quips were welcomed by her audience. It should be noted that Moriarty’s style was occasionally dissonant to the energy of her counterparts. The understated honesty of her performance would undoubtedly flourish in a more intimate setting but was sometimes buried by the unhinged realisation of Sondheim’s vision.

Being an understudy is undeniably daunting, and yet Peter Todd stepped into the role of Anthony with a truly exemplary performance. Though reliant on the script throughout, Todd’s characterisation was never hindered by this last-minute responsibility. He approached the role with a charming innocence and his ardent love for Johanna (Hannah O’Sullivan) was an endearing distraction from the horror of the plot. O’Sullivan herself perfectly captured Johanna’s dreams, frustrations, and hardships. A talented vocalist, she invited the audience into her isolation with refreshing transparency. The young lovers were delightful to watch.

The character of Johanna’s guardian, Judge Turpin, was expertly crafted by Noah Radcliffe-Adams. The judge’s uncomfortably entitled demeanour ate away at the audience as he cavorted the stage, and his descent into carnal obsession was suitably unnerving. This was only heightened by the equally unsettling actions of The Beadle, played by Declan Ryder, although his interception of the harmonium in the second act was a welcome source of comic relief.

Beyond the grotesquery of Todd’s baking enterprise, the continental splendour of Pirelli (Ollie Khurshid) and his trusty sidekick Toby (Molly Jones) were a delight to watch. Khurshid’s exaggerated showmanship perfectly encapsulated the deceptive streak of the conman he portrayed. Meanwhile, Jones brilliantly transformed Toby from a mischievous urchin boy to the deranged purveyor of the show’s tragic conclusion, with a stunning combination of cheery naivety and emotional growth. Toby significantly matured in loyalty and wisdom throughout Act 2, and yet the audience never felt cheated by some ‘flick of a switch’ gimmick.

The extraordinary talents of Gracie Oddie-James could never be forgotten. Her eccentricity and gorgeous soprano belt made the ever-fleeting beggar woman a truly memorable persona. However, the so-called ‘reveal’ of her true identity at the musical’s climax was a little underwhelming. Imogen Albert’s directorial choice to heavy-handedly hint this near the start of the performance obliterated the shocking revelation. Equally, the beggar woman’s appearances were too manic and darting to achieve dramatic irony. It was a shame that such a monumental aspect of the plot was treated with such nonchalance.

The props used throughout also left much to be desired. I was struck by the professionalism of the set design and lighting the moment I entered the auditorium, which makes the relative cheapness of the props all the more confusing. Not even Olivier Award worthy acting could distract from the cheap wig, plastic gavel and bird cages that resembled a Year 2 school project.

Overall, my experience watching 00Production’s Sweeney Todd was one of gruesome enjoyment. The heart-wrenching vocals, titillating tension and masterful emotional execution left me satisfyingly haunted. I’m sure Sondheim was looking down and cackling with delight.