By Aggie Holland
It’s a tough act to follow the likes of Angela Lansbury, Siobhan McCarthy and Imelda Staunton in playing one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre – but someone’s got to. Yet they never tell you how hard it is to follow yourself.
Not only is she one of the most prolific characters in British folklore, but Mrs. Lovett is one of the greatest gifts that any actress can be given in the theatre canon. I was first cast as ‘the worst baker in London’ in the autumn of 2015 ahead of a run of Sweeney Todd in February the following year, meaning that when I first played her, I was only twenty-five.
Bitter, resentful, and vindictive yet somehow disarmingly sexy – sure – but by anyone’s account I was probably the wrong age to play someone customarily played by someone at least a decade older. Mrs. Lovett is the kind of casting gift that you can wait a lifetime to be given. To step into her shoes once is miraculous, but worryingly I’ve been entrusted with the role a second time for the upcoming BROS production too. As my brother shrewdly pointed out only just this weekend, “isn’t it a bit mad that you’ll have [done] her twice and you’re not even thirty?” A bit mad? It’s madder than thinking you can whack a bit of coriander on a cadaver and pass it off as a Fray Bentos. Pretty mad then.
What’s Mrs. Lovett like?
Mrs. Lovett is intensely likeable. Murderous tendencies aside, I will fight her corner till my own dying day. In a world full of Victorian Kardashians, she’s a Morticia Addams. She’s self-deprecating, she has considerable business acumen (eventually), she endures constant mansplaining and being overlooked continually by several characters throughout the script, and steps over being sidelined without batting an eyelash or a grain of flour. Contextually, she is devoted to the spirit of turn-of-the-century capitalism. Sweeney Todd himself is too deep in his own rampage look beyond his periphery, so she delivers the famous solution which not only clears the suspicious heap of bodies piling up in the basement, but also turns a handsome profit. She’s a modern woman. She’s ’eminently practical’.
She’s also phenomenally relatable. She outwardly displays a hardened shell for self-preservation purposes, but scratch the surface just a little and she is maternally coquettish and sensitive. She is very hard on other women when it affects her own success – not an attractive trait, admittedly, but sadly true. She is inexplicably patient with Todd, who fixates on his own problems and who in turn is blind to the vivacious, talented, siren of a woman in front of him, perpetually and perilously trying to persuade him to fall in love with her. For me, it sounds hauntingly familiar.
What about the music?
The music in Sweeney Todd is the diamond in Stephen Sondheim’s crown, and the most glittering cut is a line sung by Mrs. Lovett on the subject of shepherd’s pie. When I first played her, I salivated just at the thought of building to that line, and it’s the same in 2019 as it was in 2016. The real magic of Mrs. Lovett is as a vehicle to deliver lyrics and melodies which keep giving and giving. Three years ago I was recently heartbroken and getting to belt and emote towards Lovett’s tragic crescendo in the final scene, her spine-chilling “‘cause I love you” section is as cathartic as it comes for a singer. Three years on the same line, and it still makes the tears prick in my eyes and the blood flood to my ears. It’s delicious and painful and in another three years, and another thirty, it will still make me burn. That said, there continues to be something new and delectable to find within her in each rehearsal. Next week I’ll probably apply new meaning to the words “it’s only Friday.” Can’t wait.
So how do we get tickets?
I miss my first foray into Mrs. Lovett more than I can say, but giving her a new lease of life with a cast of countless talented friends and new faces is something I really need to thank director Paul Turnbull for. I hoped to get into her corset again one day, but can’t believe it’s so soon: and it fits even better this time around. Mrs. Lovett is back, with revenge and a vengeance and even better hair.
And now for a completely spontaneous call to action – we go up in less than seven weeks and it will be slightly self-indulgent if we all sing endless ballads to an empty room. Run, don’t walk, to the box office and whatever you do, try not to get seats in the splash zone.