“You shouldn’t harm nobody”
It is always good to hear that major UK theatres are co-producing shows, especially with the trans-Pennine co-operation between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Royal Exchange on this production of Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I couldn’t help but wonder though how the show will make the leap from Leeds to Manchester, from the vast expanse of the Quarry to the intimacy of being in-the-round. Director James Brining has form though, this adaptation was first mounted at the Dundee Rep (and will undergo an additional transformation next year to fill the Wales Millennium Centre) and as a debut for this newly installed Artistic Director, it does feel like a canny choice.
He relocates Sondheim’s musical to the early Thatcher years, arguing her particular brand of socially transformative politics gave rise to as desperate a despondency as is familiar to us from Dickens. But what moving it out of its original Victorian context to something altogether more modern really achieves is to create an altered, and more chilling, sense of horror. It becomes a scarier psychodrama which is light on laughs and somehow more realistic as a serial killer thriller, although one does have to suspend a little disbelief when it comes to some of the finer points of transportation.
David Birrell makes a fearsomely arrogant demon barber, warped by a society that has done him serious wrong and calculatedly calm in the ruthlessness with which he dispatches victim after victim from his chair, imposing his own brand of selective revenge. Gillian Bevan’s peroxided and fly-swatting Mrs Lovett feels more unlikeably tragic than ever and as the young’uns whose lot seems a particularly hopeless one in this world, Niamh Perry’s doll-like Johanna, Michael Peavoy’s Anthony and Ben Stott’s Tobias all do excellent work. The rest of the hard-working ensemble cover a multitude of smaller parts but are best when united in song, their combined impact simply glorious in delivering David Shrubsole’s orchestrations.
Colin Richmond’s design of industrial containers is bleakly effective and adaptable, making great use of this huge stage, and the richness of Sondheim’s score remains a genuine delight, propelling the dastardly narrative through its unique take on savoury baked goods to the harrowing conclusion. It’s a bold start to Brining’s tenure and a pleasingly collaborative one which I hope continues to be replicated across the land.