Arts & Entertainment

The demon barber gets a haircut

Sam Reynolds / McGill Tribune

There are stories that are fun, pleasing, and uplifting to the soul and spirit. Then there are others that are dark, brutal, and challenging to watch unfold. And then there’s Sweeney Todd. 

One of Stephen Sondheim’s best known works, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street follows the titular antihero through a tale of revenge, blood, and star-crossed love. The various dimensions are fleshed out skillfully by the cast and crew of the Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society in a largely faithful rendition that features personal, idiosyncratic twists, combining in a vividly haunting experience. This won’t be quite like any previous Sweeney Todd you may have seen before. 

Fifteen years can be a very long time. For Sweeney Todd, fifteen years saw the loss of his wife to the arsenic bottle and the loss of his daughter to the corrupt judge who orchestrated it all. Having now returned to London, Todd, together with the delightfully amoral Mrs. Lovett, is determined to slice his way to the vengeance that he seeks. 

Benjamin Harris’ Todd was one tormented and torn asunder by his powerful passions. His emphatic characterizations bordered on schizophrenia, moving from sullenness to rage with psychotic fluidity. Songs were strong overall, with “Epiphany” being the apex of Harris’ various emotional surges.  

Zara Jestadt’s Mrs. Lovett featured fantastic physicality, a living proof that dilapidated poise and scruffy grace do not have to be contradictions in terms. This dedication is carried through to musical numbers, where Jestadt’s nuanced vocals made her perhaps the most well-rounded and consistent actor in the production. Full disclosure: “By the Sea” holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart, and Jestadt pulled it off beautifully.

Together, the two showcased lovely interplay on several occasions; “A Little Priest” was one of the show’s highlights as a result, durng which Harris was his most natural. 

Among the strong supporting cast, Judge Turpin (Mike Sornberger) made a truly indelible impression. Possessing an unsurpassed gravitas on stage, centred on his full-bodied vocals, Sornberger skillfully crafted what may be the darkest and most disturbing moment in the production (“Johanna: Mea Culpa”).

As the juxtaposing love story, Antony (Niko Gelfars) and Johanna (Julia Bradshaw) provided  pleasant reveries from the bleak arch-narrative. Gelfars’ amicability and enthusiasm was his greatest strength while Bradshaw was served well by a formidable voice, although struggling to fulfil the non-musical dimensions of her role. 

The set was very much spartan, which paradoxically served to limit the amount of space available to the cast. Signage high above was relied upon to denote locations instead of the set pieces. Make-up suffered from inconsistencies, with Todd’s approaching mask-like density, while the Beggar Woman appeared to have been the cleanest in all of London. Lighting was only effective during the choral interludes, when stark contrasts amplified the onstage intensity. One success was the orchestra, who, under the direction of Sean Mayes, executed Sondheim’s score with mastery.  

Director Phaedra Nowak implemented a few quirks, placing a personal print on the fairly popular tale, even though the moments themselves were to mixed effect. The surprise reveal of Mr. Todd was an ingenious start to the performance, while the later ballet interjection was quaint but felt assuredly out of place. 

Staging in the production appeared underdeveloped, with significant amounts of sedentary moments, although “Kiss Me” and “God, That’s Good!” were choreographed brilliantly.  

The tale of Sweeney Todd is not for the faint of heart, and this is certainly true for AUTS’ rendition. It won’t be the most polished piece you see this year, but in those brief moments where ecstasy and horror become one, it may be the most evocative.  


The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is running at Moyse Hall from January 26th to 28th, 7:30pm.

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