Lunatics, razors and pies: Immersive production of Sweeney Todd takes over abandoned Norwich shoe factory
- Credit: Andrew Butler
The abandoned warehouse is the setting for Sound Ideas Theatre Co's latest ambitious proudtion that includes Mrs Lovett's kitchen serving pies.
An abandoned former Norwich shoe factory has been transformed into an asylum as part of a unique immersive production of Sweeney Todd.
Lunatics wander amongst the audience, there are some big razors, lots of blood and even Mrs Lovett's kitchen serving pies — to try if you dare.
Being performed in their own handbuilt theatre space — with the audience all feet from the action — it is the latest eye-catching production from ambitious Norwich-based theatre company Sound Ideas.
Formed in 2013 as part of the Norwich Fringe Festival when five theatre nuts with an obsession for obscure theatre crowded around a piano in our friend's garage, the talented company has grown from successful bar shows to well received full-scale shows.
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Last year they pulled off a coup when they staged the regional premiere of oddball toilet-themed hit Broadway cult musical Urinetown. They followed that up with an equally ambitious Christmas production of Stephen Sondheim's dark spin on fairytales Into The Woods.
Now in their first escape from the confines of the traditional theatre in a site-specific immersive production they have again turned to Sondheim. But their most ambitious project so far, this is a Sweeney Todd unlike many that have gone before.
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For a start it is taking place in a temporary theatre space they have built in St Mary's Works, a former shoe factory that once belonged to Sexton, Son & Everard. Behind the factory's handsome brick facade, a huge local workforce produced high quality boots and shoes until the company closed in 1976.
'They are doing a massive renovation, but ahead of that they are letting people use it as a creative space,' explains Sound Ideas artist director Dan Smith.
'It is a big empty warehouse in which we have built a pop-up theatre. We have built a stage, a bar and the seating, all from scratch. It has been an amazing challenge but it does mean that it is exactly what we wanted it to be. It is completely bespoke for our production.'
Having seen the abandoned factory it looked perfect for the company's desire to stage Sondheim's musical in a truly immersive setting.
'We did Urinetown at the Maddermarket Theatre, then Into The Woods at Norwich Playhouse,' said Dan. 'We have wanted to do Sweeney Todd for some time but we didn't want to just do a generic production of it, because everyone else has already done that. We have been holding out for the right space to do it in, then someone told me about the Old Shoe Factory.
It is a really atmospheric space. It had a really low ceiling but there is an amazing echo in there. It will definitely be more of an experience rather than just a show. It is a really site-specific work.'
This Sweeney Todd has been transposed from its more usual Victorian penny dreadful origins to 1984. The audience is in a room in Fogg's Asylum – a cavernous space filled with flickering TVs and crackling radios. An ear-piercing factory whistle signals lock-up as patients sit in awe of the flashing images and tell the story of the closest shave you'll ever want.
The production heightens Sondheim's message that it is not just Sweeney that is mad but through it's corruption, consumption and inequality, society is totally insane.
'We have updated it to 1980s mainly because we have seen many productions of it and we always find that when it is 18th century and they are all wearing top hats it is just kind of funny,' said Dan. 'We wanted it to become more relatable, so without modernising so much that it becomes silly, we have done it close enough to the present that people can recognise it.
'We have gone for the Thatcher era which resonates with what the original was like anyway, but it makes it more recognisable and makes it more scary. That fits with our aesthetic for the show, which is to make it less of a comedy and more of a drama.'
He added: 'Because it is often played a comedy people forget that it is actually about cannibalism and murder. It is nice to bring it closer to that, making it darker. I won't say it is scary as such, but it is certainly more uncomfortable to be that close to lunatics, big razors and a lot of blood.'
It such certainly be an experience fo the audience who will be close to — or in some cases in amongst, the action.
'The audience are only a few feet away regardless of where they sit as we are performing it in traverse, so people sitting down either side of the stage. Hopefully it will really make them feel part of the asylum.
'We have set the entrie show inside Fogg's asylum. As people walk into the space there will be luncatics running around and flickering old televisions showing news reports from the 1980s, building up the feeling of that era before we begin. Then the whole show is based around that medical theme. The bad guys are doctors and nurses, the good guys are the patients. It should be great fun.'
To add to the interaction there will be pies available — though the fillings can be vounched for. 'We have built Mrs Lovett's kitchen and so the first 50 people who have bought tickets are also having pies,' explains Dan. 'In a normal theatre we won't be able to do that but because we have our own space we can really push what we can do around the show.'
The music is being played live by a six-piece band who play numerous instruments. 'We have taken what should have been a 30-piece orchestra and really condensed it, but it sounds phenomenal in that space, which is echoey and cavenous. It feels massive even though it is not that big.'
The return to Sondheim is something that was inevitable for the company. 'We love Sondheim because it is such a unique challenge. There is nothing else like it,' enthuses Dan. 'It is so different to any other composer's work, not just because it is difficult, but you can pull and twist his shows and really do interesting things with them because they are timeless in a way.
'Although his stories are epic and well thought out, you can really play with the timings and characters which is something our company is really keen on.'
As with their previous productions the cast is made up of talented local performers. Sweeney Todd is being played by Joseph Betts, Mrs Lovett by April Nash and Tina Dalzell, Judge Turpin by Michael Collins and Beadle Bamford by Jake Champion.
Dan said: 'This is our first rep production. Up until now we have always done open auditions. For this show we invited a cast of people that we have worked with before, mainly because we only fisnihed Into The Woods in December and have only had nine or 10 weeks to put everything together.
'Most are local actors with a couple from further afield but we are losing four of them to stage school this year, which is amazing for them obviously.
They are an amazing bunch and we always try to work with the very best we can. I am a strong believer that amateur theatre doesn't need to be amateur in any capacity. There are so many willing and talented people and if you have the right people you can really push them and strive to do the very best work.'
• Sweeney Todd is being staged at The Shoe Factory Social Club, St Mary's Works, Oak Street, in Norwich from March 23-April 1 (not March 26), 7.30pm nightly, tickets £17, booking via www.soundideastheatre.co.uk