It’s been over 30 years since audiences were first implored to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, yet Bolton Octagon’s new production of Sondheim’s legendary musical makes an ambitious attempt at re-imagining the show for a new generation of theatre-goers.
Mixing professional actor-musicians with a locally recruited community chorus, Elizabeth Newman’s production is non-conventional from the outset. Crammed with stylistic devices, in-jokes and metaphors, this dizzying production sets Victorian London’s infamous demon barber in a context described in the programme as ‘CSI-style Sweeney Todd’. Obsessed with gaining vengeance on a society he blames for the loss of his wife and daughter, Mr Todd slits the throats of his customers in a world where he also receives deliveries from Amazon.com.
Part fetish nightclub, part forensic crime scene, the design is a confusing mix of traditional Victoriana and contemporary references. The community chorus wear latex and boiler suits with whistles around their necks, the blood spatters on the wall glow under UV light while the main cast dress in breeches and corsets. Lucy Sierra’s set is used well, providing a literal playground for the performers: a giant metal climbing frame over four levels including stepladders, a cage and a slide that runs directly from Sweeney’s third level slaughter parlour to Mrs Lovett’s ground floor bake room.
The professional cast are clearly a very talented bunch, with every performer playing at least one instrument as well as singing and acting their roles within the show. Of particular note are Mark Heenehan as Judge Turpin and Ruth Alexander Rubin as Mrs Lovett who both create convincing and well-rounded characters alongside the task of playing their instruments. Adam Barlow puts in a beautiful vocal performance and gives a cheeky nod to the local area with a Bolton accent.
Though adventurous, this is a production that is perhaps over-crowded with good ideas. An interesting take on a classic that goes for the jugular, but isn’t quite the killer musical you remember it to be, due to the muddled approach.