Attend the tale of Sweeney's Chair!

Attend the tale of Sweeney's Chair!

Over the weekend, the Technical Director and Set Designer for 'Sweeney Todd' and his trusted team made the journey to Andover on a mission to build a chair! Hugh Bowers, Angus Cha and Katie Stapleton made the 36 hour ‘road trip’ with only success on their minds. Here's what they had to say.

Hugh says: "As a design it started out as a standard barbers chair that you would swivel around in a Victorian era style; so big leather upholstery. 

"From a functional perspective it’s very difficult to make one of those that can also work and throw people out of it accordingly so we went away to ruminate some more and came back with a normal looking chair. This chair still had a crank on the side so we could operate it properly, ultimately I wanted it to be easily visible in the way that the chair worked. 

"As for being able to build it we got in contact with a former student techie, Jack Swanborough at Hurstbourne Forge, who was beyond helpful. We had only actually asked for advice on getting this project off-the-ground based on our design but we are so grateful that he offered to give us his time and his workshop whilst helping us build it. 

"Thus began what became known as 'Sweeney Todd Lads Roadtrip'. We went up there in the car, the three of us in TIMMY - which is the name of the car - with 8 and a half hours spent on the first day working. Jack was a very good teacher and was able to show us metalwork things that was invaluable in such a large facility. It was very cool to workshop design on the fly when realising ideas didn’t work or pieces didn’t fit properly we had to manufacture new ideas or solutions. I spent around 3-4 hours that day angle grinding which was fun! Overall we had a great product by the end of it although riding the chair is a bit terrifying - it's like being at the top of a rollercoaster as it's not a really slow descent, you pull the lever and it dumps you out of the front!"

Read below the words of Katie Stapleton, owner of TIMMY and the reason Sweeney has his beloved chair:

“Over the weekend, we went on a ‘road trip’ to Andover to visit Hurstbourne Forge and alumni Jack Swanborough. Our aim: in a 36 hour round trip, build a functioning Sweeney drop-chair! I really enjoyed using the laser cutter and observing welding first hand as we pieced together the different aspects of the chair: the frame, the drop mechanism and then the safety catch. 

"On the Saturday night we were kindly hosted by Jack and Lydia as they told us stories of the large scale sets they were involved in as students  including a revolve, a trapdoor in the stage down into the workshop, and a full body of water to represent Venice! We definitely left inspired for future set designs!

"At 6pm on Sunday we faced the final ultimatum: would the chair fit in the car plus 3 people? Luckily, due to some careful design choices to allow for later maintenance, we were able to partially disassemble the chair and no one had to take the train home!”

Alongside Katie was our star engineer Angus Cha who designed and participated in the construction of the chair, see what he had to say about the trip below:

'Sweeney Todd' is a complex show, demanding a hugely talented cast, a well rehearsed band for Sondheim’s notorious scores, and a cohesive tech team with detailed, well-crafted sets complemented by precise lighting. Building this is already a tricky ordeal, with large flats, decks, windows and trucks (set pieces that can roll onto stage) all needing to be designed, constructed and decorated. Putting together multiple of these to facilitate the varying locations and atmospheres of each scene is what makes this show so complex from a technical standpoint, and has required months of planning to all come together. It was learning about the huge set for this show, when I was approached by the Set Designer and Technical Director Hugh Bowers, to inform me that I had omitted perhaps the most complex and demanding item; Sweeney Todd’s Barber Chair. Accepting this project would mean designing a reliable and safe collapse mechanism resettable entirely by cast, all within the short and chaotic timeframe of Cambridge terms."


"Designing the chair was relatively straightforward, as I was able to take inspiration from the many pre-existing designs available. Most pre-existing chairs seemed to fall into a few categories, with either a Z shape folding into a ramp, or a collapsible bottom with some sort of mechanism to kick out the front. We opted for this, as it felt the safest and mechanically simplest (whilst giving us the most creative freedom and ability to decorate it and give it a “designed, purposefully scrappy aesthetic”). The design then spanned a few weeks of verifying that the mechanism would be safe, work and thinking about rough dimensions to ensure the rough outline is designed, and the hinge mechanism is precise and safe. Fundamentally, the design consists of a seat supported from the back, hinged halfway down to allow for collapse, a lever connected to push it past its collapse point, and a back, designed with a bowden cable releasing a pin, and letting the back fall naturally."


"We always knew that a welding project with such requirements would’ve been impossible at the ADC, and therefore we were incredibly lucky that a former student Jack Swanborough was happy to host us at his professional metal-working workshop (Hurstbourne Forge) for a weekend of rapid construction, re-design and troubleshooting. It was through this that the concept of the “Sweeney Todd Lads Roadtrip” was born, and 3 adventurers (Myself, Katie Stapleton and Hugh Bowers) ventured down to Andover to construct the chair. Throughout the 2 days, we lasercut the sheet parts, drilled all the required holes, angle grinded welds (many, many hours of angle grinding…) and a significant amount of re-designing and fixes. The difficulty with designing projects such as this, is no matter how much thought goes into a design, there are always oversights and unforeseen issues that need to be fixed. Ultimately, after 2 days, we resulted in a chair very similar to the drawings, but including a cleverly simple lever locking mechanism (thanks to Jack), some minor tweaks in size and safety features.

"This chair will be deployed onto a custom platform and trapdoor, to make people down a chute after Sweeney kills them, and hopefully you will all be able to see this incredible piece alongside the amazing cast and crew of Sweeney Todd next week at the ADC!"

Special thanks to the team at Hurstbourne Forge for making this project possible!

Sweeney Todd runs from Wed 13 - Sat 23 March at the ADC Theatre.

Get your tickets here!