Not long into the first half of Sweeney Todd, my stomach rumbled and I realised the folly of failing to have any tea before the show. Nearly three hours of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street lay ahead, much of which is set in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. This was going to be a challenging evening.
The legend of Sweeney Todd has been told many times but it is thanks to Stephen Sondheim that this (fictional) story is known the world over – there’s even a barber’s shop in the Yorkshire town of Todmorden called Sweeney’s of Tod. The award-winning composer and lyricist, now aged 83, used his considerable skills to make a fantastical story palatable to a modern audience. In doing so, he immortalised a cut-throat barber, a salty shop owner and a thirst for revenge in what Sondheim himself calls a ‘dark operetta’.
This new staging of Sweeney Todd is a joint undertaking by the Leeds-based West Yorkshire Playhouse and Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It’s the first cross-Pennine collaboration of its kind and, if last night’s production is anything to go by, the beginning of a fruitful partnership.
James Brining’s production has already enjoyed a successful run to packed houses in Leeds, delighting critics and audiences alike. When you consider that the 15-strong cast has been combining evening shows with daily re-rehearsals for the Manchester run, that’s quite something.
While the Quarry Theatre at the Playhouse is a rather traditional space – a sizeable ampitheatre that lends itself to large sets and big props – the Exchange’s intimate in-the-round environment presented new challenges to Brining and his team. I didn’t see the West Yorkshire Playhouse staging but I gather it was on a grand scale and incorporated elements that audiences have come to expect from adaptations of Sweeney Todd, not least the way in which Todd and his willing accomplice Lovett dispose of bodies. For fans of the musical, this is an important device – so what would the Exchange do?
There are no plot spoilers on Northern Soul so suffice to say that the production team devised an ingenious solution to the change in space. In fact, the challenges presented by a totally different stage amplified the enjoyment of the show and did a great job in showcasing the collective vocal talents of the actors. It also forced a reinterpretation of Todd that, as someone who has seen numerous theatre, TV and film versions, was a welcome surprise.
In the lead role of the exiled barber who returns from incarceration in Australia to find his life in tatters, David Birrell managed the difficult task of eliciting sympathy for his predicament while inspiring horror at his disregard for human life. His singing was beyond compare, as was the vocal range of Gillian Bevan as his partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett. A veteran of Sondheim shows, Bevan injected humour into the grimmest of scenes and expertly portrayed a character who veers from homely to downright evil. The relationship between the two leads sizzled across the stage, in part because the sexual frisson had been heightened, much more so than in previous adaptations. Across the ensemble there were no weak links, a rare achievement in today’s theatre.
And the songs, the songs. I’ve seen a lot of musical theatre and few shows stand up the scrutiny of Sweeney Todd. Sondheim was at his best when he wrote this. He makes demands of his performers that only a handful of people can pull off. Last night the counterpoints were flawless (a theatrical term for overlapping or simultaneous verses) and emotions flowed freely. The central refrain – a staccato rendering of the operatta’s title – sent shivers down the spine and is certain to remain lodged in the audience’s consciousness for some time to come.
There were echoes of Sondheim’s West Side Story in songs like Johanna (perfectly juxtaposed with one of the most bloodthirsty segments of the show) and a nod to Macbeth in the twisted alliance of Mrs Lovett and Todd, she goading him on to turn people into pies for profit.
Unusually for a musical that has long been associated with Dickensian gloom and the Victorian obsession with murder, Brining has chosen a more contemporary setting. I’m afraid the allusions to the Thatcherite era went over my head (and were perhaps more apparent in the Leeds staging) but the change in scene worked. It was a bold move and it paid off.
This is Leeds-born Brining’s first full programme for the Playhouse theatre having been appointed artistic director last year (he was previously at Dundee Rep). It’s clear he has big ambitions – in addition to the new partnership with the Exchange, this show will be re-created on a larger scale in 2015 in an ambitious co-production with Welsh National Opera and Wales Millennium Centre. I have just one request ahead of the re-imagining: more carnage please. I may be in the minority here, but I would have preferred a bloodier production, all spurting veins and blood-soaked floors.
Still, it’s a minor grievance. As crowd-pleasers go, Brining’s Sweeney Todd is up there with the best of ’em – gloriously gory, marvellously macabre and deliciously dark. It was so compelling that I stopped for a McDonald’s on the way home.
Review by Helen Nugent
Photos: Jonathan Keenan
When: until November 30, 2013
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester