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When I saw that Stephen Sondheim’s classic tale of murder, cannibalism and sing-speaking, Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was coming to Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse, I was ecstatic. It’s one of my favourite musicals, and I was still feeling a bit gutted about missing out on the 1930s-set Michael Ball/Imelda Staunton version down in London last year. Like that production, James Brining’s first show as the Playhouse’s Artistic Director updates the action from the gloomy streets of Victorian London to the 20th century, but moves it even further forward, to the 1970s. It makes for a few interesting anachronisms within the text of the play itself, but ultimately what was so fascinating about the update was just how many of the show’s lyrics and themes meshed perfectly with the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain.
It was an almost seamless transition – sure, Mr T might not have been transported to a penal colony in Botany Bay, and Mrs Lovett’s weekly takings from her now-booming meat pie shop would probably have been a bit more than seven pounds, nine shillings and four pence, but almost everything else was a perfect match. You’ve got a show that deals with mass unemployment and economic hardship, the mistreatment of those with mental health issues, the mass popularity of junk food, and sexual abuse by rich, white men – all things which remain powerfully relevant both in the Seventies and today. Rather than feeling like one huge anachronism, the update gave the show a real sense of timelessness.
David Birrell’s Sweeney Todd was superb – purposeful, vengeful and ever-so-slightly unhinged. From the very first time we see him, bursting through the double doors at the back of the stage to join the chorus in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, he’s an incredibly powerful presence on the stage, brooding and dangerous. He’s not quite as likeable as Johnny Depp managed to make him in Tim Burton’s movie adaptation, instead playing a darker version of the character. The play’s closing moments, a reprise of the opening ballad, end with a blood-drenched Sweeney and Mrs Lovett sat in his barber’s shop, with the chorus singing below them. A spotlit Birrell fixes the audience with a fierce glare, and begins to slowly rise from his chair before the lights cut out – an electrifying and oddly terrifying sight.
Mrs Lovett is a part that can often be horribly miscast – I wasn’t a huge fan of what I did see of Imelda Staunton’s portrayal – and that’s partly because there are a variety of ways she can be played. You can go down Angela Lansbury’s original lines and make her a demented, amoral clown, or follow Helena Bonham-Carter’s creepy, batty movie version. Happily, Gillian Bevan (who some of you may remember as Headteacher Claire Hunter in Teachers) struck her own path for her characterisation of a peroxide-blonde, greasy-spoon owning pie maker. She found the perfect balance between comedy and brutality needed for the role, and displayed a cracking set of pipes to boot, full of menacing Cockney charm. All-round this production was fantastically cast, from Don Gallagher’s perverted Judge Turpin (who made the entire Quarry Theatre supremely, squirmingly uncomfortable during the oft-cut “Johanna/Mea Culpa”, as he mimed wanking himself off through his trousers in between self-flagellation with a leather strap, as you do) to Michael Peavoy’s very sexy and very Scouse sailor Anthony, who was a much more convincing sex symbol for warbling shut-in Johanna than Jamie Campbell-Bower’s long-haired, twinky movie version.
The staging and special effects were also particularly effective – some really clever uses of large shipping containers and moving staircases helped to create a sense of a larger world than just the space on the stage. The crowning glory of any production of Sweeney Todd is how well they pull off the throat-slitting (SPOILER ALERT: THIS SHOW CONTAINS THROAT SLITTING, ALTHOUGH IF YOU DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW THAT I KIND OF DESPAIR), and this version doesn’t pull any punches. When Sweeney slits Pirelli’s throat, a jet of fake blood shoots at least twenty or thirty feet directly out into the audience, eliciting no small number of screams of both delight and disgust.
It’s a truly fantastic production, and if the success of this show is anything to go by, James Brining is one to watch – first the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and then the world. Catch it while you can.
Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is showing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until the 26th of October. It will then transfer to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester between the 1st and 30th of November.