Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 26 October, then transfers to the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 1–30 November.
The high camp Victorian spectres of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd are firmly exorcised in James Brining’s intense Grand Guignol version, which ramps up both dark comedy and malevolent intent into brilliant spectacle.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s recently appointed artistic director Brining, reprising and amplifying on a production that already made its mark when he was in the hot seat at Dundee Rep for his first WYP direction (a co-production with the Royal Exchange), has used the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ to make a firm statement about the way he intends to use the theatre.
His Sweeney Todd is a big production that makes a bold statement. The big stage is used to its full extent. Big voices rise in stirringly discordant, off-kilter song. Big gestures and big voices are used to grand effect. It looks fantastic: urban and threatening, with huge shipping containers used as sets, and the backstage exit used as a driveway for a full-sized vehicle. This Sweeney Todd uses visual effects in a way that harks back to the Victorian melodramas that were part of Sondheim’s source inspiration for Sweeney: if Brining had needed to flood the stage to enthrall his audience, you get the impression it would have been spectactularly flooded.
David Birrell as Sweeney is a grim, imposing figure right from the start, when the former convict Benjamin Barker lands back in London after his stint in Botany Bay – the result of a miscarriage of justice. As the storyline mounts and his quest for revenge against Judge Turpin (played loathsomely by Don Gallagher) reaches its gory climax, he becomes an ever-more unsettling figure, increasingly obsessed and driven. Gillian Bevan’s Mrs Lovett is a fine, darkly comic foil: a chirpily inhumane Cockney café owner with a practical bent who doesn’t see the point in good human flesh going to waste when it could be going into her pies.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, whether shuffling and ticcing as mental patients, rollicking as hedonistic pie-eaters or contributing an atmosphere of crowding, looming urban menace. They’re all in fine voice, but a special mention should go to Ben Stott (Tobias Ragg), whose singing reaches heartbreaking heights when he discovers Sweeney’s murderous madness and the true ingredients of Mrs Lovett’s pies.
Much is made in the programme about the 1980s setting both reflecting Sondheim’s preoccupations at the time he wrote the piece, and giving this production a contemporary twist with themes of inner city squalor and the poverty-stricken underclass. But this is one of those productions where the casting and performances are so stirring, and the production’s sinister intent so well realised, that it doesn’t need an additional context. It’s a lurid, laugh-aloud melodrama, gloriously gory, brilliantly bloodthirsty and staged with such flair that its grisliest moments are met with a heady mixture of horror and hilarity. It is a triumph of a production. Lucky Manchester, who gets it next.