Sweeney Todd (Manchester)

Craig Hepworth doesn’t like the contemporary setting of this new production at the Royal Exchange, but loves its vibrancy and spirit

Gillian Bevan as Mrs Lovett and David Birrell as Sweeney Todd
Gillian Bevan as Mrs Lovett and David Birrell as Sweeney Todd
© Jonathan Keenan

Director James Brining obviously wanted to make an impact with his first show since taking the position of Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse; this joint production with the Royal Exchange of the classic Sondheim show is certainly an impressive debut, if slightly flawed.

The story of "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" vowing revenge on the man who destroyed his family with Pie Shop owner Mrs Lovett at his side has been transported from Victorian times to the downtrodden 70s/80s streets of London.

Whilst this idea is interesting and the links to the era work, the new setting jars against the text. The show was written with the voice of a 19th century piece, so to have a neon cafe sign or a Robin Reliant driving on the stage does not sit well alongside talk of serving time in exile in Australia. However, this is not to say it brings the production down, once you can accept the flaw it's easy to enjoy the show and have a bloody good time.

The show, since playing at The Playhouse, has now been adapted to fit the round at the Exchange and works beautifully. A simple yet effective design moves the show along at a perfect pace, with set pieces coming in and out imaginatively and the lighting design (Chris Davey) emphasising and illuminating every moment – from the fires of the chimney to the brutality of the murders.

I must also mention the incredible sound design (Richard Brooker), which was one of the best I have heard in all my years of seeing musicals. This is a beautifully brutal, stark and thrilling production that immerses you in the world the characters inhabit from the second you enter the theatre until the final blood-drenched moments.

What really makes this Sweeney so delicious, however, are the performances. This is a perfect cast that keeps the heart pounding throughout. David Birrell as Todd is on fine form, played as a man you could pass in the street one moment and empty and murderous the next, his cold stare and stunning voice make for a perfect Todd. Not to be outdone, though, is Gillian Bevan, whose brand new interpretation of Mrs Lovett is a revelation; the role seems more human that previous productions, though her calculating ways are never lost and the humour is perfection.

Ben Scott, Sebastian Torkia and Barbara Drennan also deserve a mention, but the cast as a whole were uniformly perfect and would be hard to beat in any production playing the city this year.

While the production has not been altogether successful in the modern day interpretation, the creative team must be congratulated for trying something new with the show. Even with these quibbles, it's one of the most exciting productions of Sweeney Todd I have ever seen.

– Craig Hepworth