The meat of the matter: Chatting to Sweeney

Tom Bevan 10 November 2015

The infamously dark and twisted 19th century tale of Sweeney Todd follows a barber’s murderous quest for vengeance with the help of a local baker, Mrs. Lovett, who is after meat for her pies. The musical, based on the Christopher Bond play, took Broadway by storm in 1979, hopping the Atlantic to reach the West End by 1980. Scooping eight Tony Awards in its first run, Sweeney has been resurrected from Spain to South Africa, and next week’s adaptation at the ADC promises to bring some fresh meat to the table.

For the cast and crew, taking on such a mammoth musical during term has, understandably, been very difficult at times. Former dame in the Footlights panto, Zak Ghazi-Torbati is gearing up for his first major “serious role” as the famous protagonist, and has found the task of taking on his favourite show “as daunting as it is exciting”. “I’ve seen so many productions of Sweeney and I’ve wanted to be in it for years,” he told us, mid-rehearsal at the ADC, “but the show’s a lot bigger than even I thought it would be. When you listen to the soundtrack you don’t realise how strenuous it is on the voice and performing the songs exactly as he [Stephen Sondheim] wrote them is bloody solid.” Playing alongside Zak as Mrs Lovett, the technical complexity of the score has proven equally challenging for Aoife Kennan, who has usually been involved in straight theatre.  “The vocals sound very easy when you listen to them but they’re so complicated. There’s been a lot of technical musical rehearsal and trying to mould the character into the songs adds another level of difficulty.” She adds: “The directors made a Spotify playlist of all of the adaptations and this helped loads; I could learn the music without getting stuck in just one interpretation.”  

Dealing with these musical challenges together, the pair’s onstage relationship benefits from an element of mutual admiration. Zak speaks fondly of how the cast as a whole has gelled, especially himself and Aoife. “She is such a natural actress and amazing to work with. I often feel like I am reacting to her as opposed to just acting… which has helped the whole process.” Aoife remarks: “Zak’s writing his thesis on Sondheim lyrics and he’s a bit obsessed. We’ll be rehearsing and he’s like ‘oh my god, I’m going to put this in my dissertation!’”

Co-directing the show with Georgie Henley, Marthe De Ferrer (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Witches of Eastwick) explains how the production took shape from a last minute ADC application. “We wanted to apply to do Heathers: The Musical but the rights weren’t available so ten minutes before the deadline we were like ‘fuck we need to do something’. We realised that Sweeney was available and we had really similar ideas about how we’d want it to be.” And how can such an acclaimed show be reimagined by student theatre? “It’s been so overdone but with very little variation. Anthony is this wet character and Johanna is always this damsel in distress.” The ensemble is full of many familiar talented Cambridge faces; according to Marthe the directors saw over one hundred auditionees and the “phenomenal selected cast have all wanted to break out of these tropes.”

Working on a large scale show brings its own headaches for the directors. “I’ve never directed anything so technically difficult as well as physically getting everyone to rehearsal. Let’s just say there’s been lots of Google docs.” The working relationship between herself and close friend, Georgie, has been fruitful, with only one reported creative squabble: “We’re still conflicting on cutting one song, but I’m not letting that happen…”

With a few hours to go until opening night, Sweeney is set to be one of the most enthralling shows this Michaelmas. Zak tells the audience to look out for “little things that make it fresher and more modern” than other adaptations whilst Aoife adds: “Sweeney has a lot of [famously] dark humour and will be so much fun to watch. The music is genuinely beautiful and fleshes out a unique storyline. Don’t miss it.”


Sweeney Todd runs this week at the ADC.