“I’m alive at last,” Sweeney Todd declares towards the end of act one, as he abandons his plan for targeted revenge against the judge who wronged him in favour of a throat-slitting class war against the generality of “those above”. Too true.
The best bits of this pared-back, socially-conscious rendering of Stephen Sondheim’s musical are alive with anger, wit and menace, but it takes just a little too long for that ghoulish glint to appear in Todd’s eye. Once it does, the rest of the production – which runs for just 10 minutes short of three hours – barrels along. Hapless victims are despatched to the underworld in the gruesome form of bucketloads of gloopy blood, while the rich gorge on man-flesh pie and Mrs Lovett, played by the charismatic Kacey Ainsworth, who is presumably sick of references to her time as EastEnders’ Little Mo, dreams of a sex-filled new life by the sea.
This being the Everyman – one of the first venues to stage the original Todd play in 1970, but also a place steeped in politically-minded and thought-provoking theatre – Liam Tobin’s demonic barber first appears not as a gothic monster, but as a downtrodden victim of an unjust society. He wants to kill not for bloodlust but for justice, and the psychopathic menace kicks in only when this plan is thwarted. Tobin plays this understated interpretation well, dressed in the dungarees and denim jacket of a modern manual worker, but for the audience that means waiting over an hour for sparks to really fly.
In the meantime, Ainsworth’s hard-edged humour and some strong supporting performances keep things from becoming stodgy. Emma Dears and Bryan Parry have perhaps the strongest voices in the company as the Beggar Woman and Anthony, while Shiv Ravheru is a scene-stealing comic turn as Pirelli’s much-abused assistant Tobias Ragg. Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford (Paul Duckworth and Mark Rice-Oxley) are suitably evil and pathetic in equal measure.
With minimal set other than the eerie light that emanates up through a well-utilised revolving stage, and a cast of just nine who stalk through the aisles of the in-the-round seating, this is a musical about as far from high-kicks and jazz hands as it is possible to get. It is a shame that this is the only big in-house production of the Everyman’s season, with the revived rep company of the past two years now sadly defunct. That ambitious experiment took an unsustainable toll on this brave theatre but produced two seasons of consistent quality and variety that in each case opened with a big musical number before moving on to fewer mainstream pastures.
Without that context, Todd feels like a less well-rounded choice of flagship show but is presumably an attempt to square a desire to produce something intelligent with the need for a title that will attract a commercially viable number of bums to seats. I hope that this calculation and effort is successful. It deserves to be.
Main image: Sweeney Todd at the Everyman. Liam Tobin and Kacey Ainsworth. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Sweeney Todd is at the Everyman, Liverpool until May 18