Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller- with music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler  

Where: Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay (behind The Olympia Café)
When: March 1-24, 2024

Time: Performances commence at 20:00, Wednesdays to Saturdays with selected Sunday performances. The Olympia Café is open from 17:30 for patrons wishing to have dinner before the performance
Tickets: R380 – book online through Quicket
Direct booking link:  https://www.quicket.co.za/events/238634-sweeney-todd-the-demon-barber-of-fleet-street/

Producers: Abrahamse and Meyer and Tally Ho! Productions
Director: Fred Abrahamse

Musical director and accompaniment on piano: Jaco Griessel  

Cast:
 
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 Gray        

There are times when one encounters a theatre production which is off the charts: Innovation of concept, performance and design. Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller – is being presented in Cape Town in The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay. It is a masterful site-specific immersive production: Steampunk Gothic operatic cabaret. Love. Love. Loved Sweeney – awesomeness of theatrical magic. Sweeney is a co-production between Cape Town’s Abrahamse and Meyer and Tally Ho! Productions. 

Yes, I rave. The work and detail- is phenomenal- design, costumes (by Marcel, Meyer, ahh those studded pants of Sweeney and the hats and cloaks), props (for example origami birds – see pic). Often we see theatre which is “innovative” but does not necessarily gel as a whole and can be all over the place. Fred Abrahamse who is the director, lighting and set designer has pulled all the elements together and creates a seamless theatre experience.

The production runs until March 24, 2024 – Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8pm. I urge you not to miss this unique theatrical happening, I do not use “unique” often. This production is uniquely Cape Town in terms of the site which has been selected- an industrial bakery. Sondheim originally conceived Sweeney as a small ensemble piece but it tends to be staged as an epic scale musical. Three years ago, there was a small ensemble site-specific production in a bakery in London. This inspired Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Myer to transfigure Sweeney in a bakery in Cape Town. It is not any bakery. The Olympia Bakery is on the site of an old cinema, Leslie’s Olympia Picture Palace, which screened silent films, with a pianist tinkering at the piano. It was the first non-segregated cinema in South Africa (1918 – 1931). Circling back, Sondheim himself said that he saw Sweeney as movie for the stage and here in 2024, we have Sweeney, in what was once a cinema, in a heritage building in Cape Town. See interview: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-immersive-site-specific-sweeney-todd-in-an-industrial-bakery-olympia-bakery-kalk-bay-march-2024/

Musical director, Jaco Griessel of Tally Ho! Productions sits at the piano, continuously through the production (and before as one enters the venue), playing Sondheim’s hypnotic score. There are echoes of the past in this space – in Cape Town –and similar stories of complex demons like Sweeney Todd – someone who never forgives and never forgets. He is driven by revenge. It all futile of course but we get sucked into the gothic thrills and spills and horrors. Marcel Meyer is magnificent as Sweeney- strutting in his studded pants and smart London attire.  Meyer conveys the loss, yearning and grief of Sweeney: “The more he bleeds, the more he lives”. I have never seen Meyer in a role like this. He is unrecognisable- brilliantly channelling the towering Sweeney into a demented figure of delusion and aspiration. Zoë McLaughlin is delicious as Mrs Lovett.

Paul Griffiths (Beadle Bamford) has not sung on stage for over two decades and he is mesmerising in voice, projection, accent and presence. Jeani Heyns (Beggar Woman/Pirelli) evokes Weimar era cabaret in a spectacular performance. The entire ensemble cast renders superb performances, with vividly developed characters. The others in the cast are: Graham Bourne, Thinus Viljoen, William Young and Zoë Gray. I was entranced by all of the players.

I was fascinated by Fred Abrahamse sitting and working the industrial hanging bakery lamps. He shifts the switches of the lights by hand; up and down; dimming and brightening them, revealing and concealing the performers, with light and shadow. A window has been back-lit. It looks like a moon – dangling above us. This production is shrouded with a luminous cinematic flicker of light and shade- shadow play/puppetry, a screen with the words of Sweeney Todd, “bleeding” (I won’t spoil how it is done). This is one of the most exciting and inventive lighting plot designs that I have seen. Bravo – Fred Abrahamse.

The choral work is breathtaking– operatic choir with harmonies. Kudos to Jaco Griessel and Abrahamse for the epic rendition of voice by an ensemble of eight- magnificent. The triple volume Olympia Bakery is a huge space. In parts, dialogue gets muffled by the piano and lost in the cavernous space. It does depend on where you are sitting and what is close to you. The players move around constantly. Hopefully, the sound can be calibrated further but it is a small niggle in this stunning production.

The labour involved in this production is staggering – putting in the props and using what is on site and then striking it all down and storing it so that the bakers can resume baking at 3am.

I love the traverse seating. The audience flanks a catwalk platform. It is fashion ramp, elevating the players, strutting their stuff, bragging and braggarts. It is gang- plank -as in walking the plank and meeting one’s death/fate. The ramp, not only expands the performance space from the narrow ledge which makes up the stage but it is also emblematic of the schlock gothic horror of the Sweeney tale. The physical performance on the ramp is a wow with Meyer in particular, using the narrow ledge as a space to writhe and slide. His performance is exceptional- slithering on the precipice of his life which is cantilevered precariously into the bakery. I was totally bowled over by an utterly stunning Sweeney Todd in a bakery in Cape Town, in the seaside village of Kalk Bay. Please do not miss.

Gothic: Paul Griffiths (Beadle Bamford) in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller, site-specific immersive production in Cape Town at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Pic: Fiona McPherson.
Delicious partners in crime: Zoë McLaughlin as Mrs Lovett and Marcel Meyer as Sweeney Todd in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller, site-specific immersive production in Cape Town at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Photo by Fiona MacPherson.
Ramp/plank of life and death: Standing ovation for Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller site-specific immersive production in Cape Town, at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Pic: Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn.
Silent movies.  Jaco Griessel is musical director and accompanies the cast on piano, in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street site-specific immersive production in Cape Town, at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Pic: Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn.
Gilded cage: Origami birds made and designed by Marcel Meyer for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- site-specific immersive production in Cape Town at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Pic: Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn.

✳Featured image: Jeani Heyns as Perilli; Marcel Meyer as Sweeney Todd in in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street- a musical thriller, site-specific immersive production, Cape Town at The Olympia Bakery, Kalk Bay, March 2024. Pic: Fiona McPherson.