On Sunday the 6th of November, I decided to watch the school play of the year because well, it was the final night. From experience, the closing night is usually the most interesting. This Fall semester, the USIU-Africa drama club Michezo Afrika put up a play adaptation of the famous British 1979 musical Sweeney Todd. It is based on a local barber who turns into a serial killer. No wonder it is called Sweeney Todd: The Devil Barber of Fleet Street. Since it was showing in Nairobi, the comedy-horror play was brought closer to home with K street as the location of the protagonist.
By 6 pm, the school auditorium was half full. This came as no shock as there had already been two showings of the play, on Thursday and Saturday evening. Half of the audience were USIU students who came to support their own and have a final weekend dose of entertainment. The other half were groups of alumni and grown ups, clearly not students, who paid 300 shillings more than students. Almost everyone in the audience held bowls of sweet caramel popcorn in their hands as they waited for the play to start.
At 6.30 pm, it was show time.
It started out slow and dark. Two narrators in blue shiny dress tops and white slacks stood on each side of the stage. They gave us a brief history of Sweeney Todd, a local barber who is back to Nairobi from exile in Kapenguria. Real name Benjamin Barker, he had been imprisoned by Judge Turpin who took away his wife and young child. Because of the greedy judge, the poor barber has been separated from his family for 15 whole years. And now he is back for revenge with a new scary name, the narrators groaned in deep scary voices.
Sweeney was a sight to behold. His face was white, paler than death; and his eyes darker than the abyss. He had a strip of white hair on the right side of his head, just like Johnny Depp in the 2007 film adaptation of the play. In the blue lighting of the stage, he looked like a monster, a devil. And had a long evil laugh to cap it off.
In the city, he meets his evil match, a pie baker called Miss Lovett. Her shop is located on K street - or what is known as Koinange street - and is an unpopular eatery that rarely has customers. As she says, her pies are hard and terrible. She even proclaims that she serves on the same table where she mixes the dough.
In their first interaction, she recognizes Sweeney and convinces him to take back his parlor, on the floor above her unsuccessful shop. She also gives him back his sharp silver razor blades.
Later on we realize, the widow has a huge crush on the demon barber.
Here were the highlights of the play:
The Italian barber. One of the rib tickling scenes is in the market place filled with hawkers and city shoppers. In it enters Signor Hammo, a flamboyant Italian barber who constantly swings his hands and flips his black long hair as he talks in his foreign accent. He comes with a hair tonic which he promises the crowd will make their hair grow fast.
To prove himself, he competes in a public shaving contest against the very own demon barber. However, he barks more than he bites, with Sweeney proving his more superior hair skills.
Later on, Signor Hammo goes to the barber shop and reveals his true self to Sweeney. His actual name is Kamau, and he is full of a sneaky agenda. He threatens Sweeney to hand him some notes every month, otherwise, he will expose him as Benjamin Barker to the world. How typical.
The cunning salesman. Toby has a charming way with words until he convinces some locals to buy the hair tonic by Signor Hammo. It is later suspected to be merely colored urine in a bottle. He also convinces drunks in a bar to wolf down Miss Lovett’s pies, which are less than fit for dogs.
The crazy lady of the town. She is that annoying beggar who asks everyone for money, barely satisfied with what she gets. She even gets into pedestrian’s pockets to hunt for her loot. Like a local business lady, she has her own Lipa Na Mpesa placard around her neck for well wishers who do not have physical cash. She also uses her local information to get money from interested parties. Antony, the young sailor who arrives with Sweeney from Kapenguria is one of her unlucky victims.
The two faces of Judge Turpin. It is evident he has an unhealthy attraction to his adopted daughter, Joanna. In one particular scene, he battles fiercely with his evil thoughts. On one side he cries to God to relieve him from his temptations, hitting himself as if to punish himself. A few minutes later however, he stands up and sings words of endearment in the song “Joanna”. Realizing his sin, he falls back to the ground asking for forgiveness and redemption. When you think he has finally turned his ways, he goes back to his feet and proclaims his thirsty love. In the end, he gives in to his desires and approaches his adopted daughter. Frightened Joanna runs away from his advances as he shouts behind her “Come to papa!”
The mad men and women in the asylum. They perform a choreographed dance, with Sia’s 2016 song The Greatest playing in the background. It looks like a performance of Thriller, the dancers moving like slightly energized zombies who have just taken a shot of Monster.
The romance between the young sailor Anthony, and Joanna who is trapped by the judge. Anthony watches her singing from her window and falls hopelessly in love with her. He promises the lovely Joanna freedom from her prison through his boat. Even though the judge’s loyal assistant Beadle Bamford tries to keep them away, Antony fights to see her. Once together, they serenade each other with love songs, like the original musical piece “Kiss Me”. Many scenes later, they finally plant shy kisses on each other’s lips. An awww worthy moment. It almost made one wish they got the part instead. The sweetest part, however, was the forehead kiss Anthony gives Joanna before leaving her in the barber shop on K street.
When Joanna is locked up in an asylum, which turns out to be Mathari Hospital, with the insane. The only way she keeps sane is to sing all day. The beautiful girl is transformed into a hopeless case in a place she does not belong. And this is all to keep her from running away with her secret lover Anthony.
When Sweeney misses his chance to kill the judge on his barber chair, he decides to enact revenge on everyone. He goes on a killing spree, slitting the throat of every customer who sits on his barber chair with his sharp silver blade. One by one they die and are slipped into the bakehouse using a trapdoor under his levered barber chair. Miss Lovett plans to use the dead bodies to make her meat pies, hoping they will compete with her rival’s reportedly made with cat meat.
One day he finally convinces the Judge Turpin to come back to his barber shop, luring him with information that he has found Joanna who has been rescued from the asylum by Antony. As Sweeney waits for him, he bumps into the beggar lady who has wandered into his barber shop. Desperate to get rid of her, he slits her throat and sends her body into the bakehouse. The judge saunters in and as he waits for Joanna to be brought to him, Sweeney offers him a free shave. At this moment he reveals himself as Benjamin Barker, before making his long-awaited revenge.
Meanwhile, Joanna has been hiding in the trunk and has heard everything. As she tries to escape, Sweeney sees her and lures her into his chair. He almost kills her not recognizing his daughter as she is dressed as a sailor as a disguise. Luckily, she runs away before she meets the same fate. We all sigh with relief.
Later in the bakery, as Miss Lovett is moving the dead bodies he has a sudden realization. The mad woman is Lucy Barker, his estranged wife. He holds her lifeless body begging her to come back. This is the first show of weakness from Sweeney. Bitterly, he accuses his companion of hiding the fact the beggar was his wife all along. Miss Lovett defends herself by saying she didn’t say Lucy was dead, only that she poisoned herself. She also reveals that the mad lady was not woman enough for him, and it is her who really loved Sweeney. He pretends to forgive her, only to kill her with his bare hands and teeth. Could he also be a vampire?
Tony, the charismatic boy who was adopted by Miss Lovett witnesses all this. He confronts Sweeney who is still flooded with guilt over his wife’s death. It is time for him to face the same fate. And that is the end of Sweeney’s life, by the blade of his own razor. In a wicked twist of fate, Tony takes up Sweeney’s razor and wicked laugh. He is the next demon barber.
The only survivors of the tragic tale are the young sweethearts, Anthony and Joanna.
The production team adapted the original London play to Nairobi. They added familiar elements like loud convincing hawkers, local drunks who drink cheap liquor then shout incomprehensible things on Nairobi streets. The characters even performed modern songs like I Aint yo mama by Jennifer Lopez and Jailer by Asa.
However, they kept most of the original script. At one point the sailor mentions the pier and Tibet, while in another scene port and Mtwapa. This brought a lot of confusion in the story. One was not sure whether it was set in England or Kenya.
The main characters of the play had English names. It was only Signor Hammo’s name that was altered from the original play. Localizing the names would have made the characters more relatable.
Throughout the play, there was a case of recycled actors. In a new change of clothes, the previously dead (at the hands of Sweeney) came back to life and assumed new roles. It was only Sweeney, Miss Lovett, Anthony and Joanna who remained constant during the show. The rest played different roles in the show. I guess that’s what happens when you have a small cast.
The Michezo Afrika play lasted for about two and half hours. I hoped there would be a break in the middle but none came. After two hours I was quite tired. I can only imagine how the actors felt.
As the curtains closed the supporting actors came first on stage. Next was Joanna who walked in with her ravishing young sailor. They were followed Miss Lovett and then the scary Sweeney played by Jedediah Mugarula, who got the most applause for his convincing performance. The producers and USIU students, Sam Kanja and Joy Wanjira were the final people to walk on stage. After holding hands and bowing three times, the dark but hilarious play was over. The end of Sweeney Todd.