‘I’m a complete sucker for that late Victorian thang,’ laughs rising star Rachel Edwards.
There's a lot of talk at the moment about gentrification trampling on London's heritage. But Edwards is showing that, sometimes, London’s heritage can fight back, as she brings a century-old south London pie shop – and its accompanying production of Sondheim’s gory masterpiece of Victoriana ‘Sweeney Todd’ – into the heart of the West End.
Edwards is the founder of Tooting Arts Club, a fringe theatre company that’s been making serious waves in SW17 over the last few years.
‘It’s a silly name,’ she says. ‘I’ve always liked Chelsea Arts Club, so it’s a play on that. Everyone thinks there’s an actual club somewhere, but there’s not, it’s just a name.’
After drawing acclaim for a series of plays, Edwards and her director Bill Buckhurst decided to stage something more ambitious: a revival of the Stephen Sondheim’s meaty musical ‘Sweeney Todd’, in which the murderous barber turns his victims into fresh pies. And they decided local establishment Harrington’s Pie and Mash would be a neat place to stage it. The critics liked it. It sold out. James Franco – the actual James Franco! – came to Tooting – the actual Tooting! – to see it. And on the last night, they received a visit from the 84-year-old colloquially known as ‘God’.
‘Stephen Sondheim came down,’ says Edwards. ‘The whole production had a good wind behind it, but ending it with him was like “What just happened?”’
That wasn’t the end though: a few days later, she got a phone call from billionaire super-producer Cameron Mackintosh, who – on Sondheim’s recommendation – offered her an empty West End space to transfer ‘Todd’.
So here we are, doing the interview in the husk of unlamented Shaftesbury Avenue nightclub Avalon, which is rapidly being transformed into an exact pop-up replica of Harrington’s: its floor, its tables, its counter. The real Harrington’s is being done up in the interim, so the entire staff are moving to the West End with the show (‘They were totally up for it’).
It’s as much a transfer for the shop as the show: there are no pie-and-mash shops in central London any more, so this one will include an exhibit on the history of our city’s traditional fast food. Sadly, it’s only possible to sell pies to people attending the show, but that’s the one compromise.
‘I was speaking to Dave who makes the pies,’ says Edwards, ‘and I said: “Are you going to zhush-up your pies now you’re heading up the West End?” And he just said: “No.”
There is no vegetarian option. Which is totally as it should be.’
‘Sweeney Todd’ is at Harrington's Pie and Mash, 39-45 Shaftesbury Avenue until May 16