Review: Sweeney Todd (Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse)

Nick Bagnall’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s gory musical opens in Liverpool

Liam Tobin as Sweeney Todd
Liam Tobin as Sweeney Todd
© Marc Brenner

It's an age-worn tale: murderous barber meets pie-shop owner; murderous barber bumps off customers; pie-shop owner butchers human cadavers… Stephen Sondheim's musical turns Sweeney Todd into a story of almost Jacobean tragedy – a man wronged by a society that looks down on the lower echelons – but Nick Bagnall's production gives it a punky spirit: class war, with singing and pies.

A restructured Everyman is centred around a revolving, circular metal grate for this very modern take on the demon barber. It makes for an intimate experience that literally puts the audience amid the action, though it's questionable whether the in-the-round staging is worth the trade-off. While the bare, physically demanding set emphasises the grimy, brutish nature of Victorian life at the lower rungs, the cast aren't always easy to hear, particularly during musical numbers.

Liam Tobin is a brooding, hunched Todd, swathed in oversized denim – almost monomaniacal yet not without softer aspects to his character. Kacey Ainsworth as impecunious baker Mrs Lovett gives a standout performance. Clad in tracksuit bottoms and tattoos, she could have walked out of a Channel 5 documentary about life on benefits. It is dotty, funny and oddly adorable – when she serenades Sweeney with her dreams of a cosy life by the sea you could almost forgive her for making pies out of human flesh.

Yet moments later she is pouring buckets of gore through Michael Vale's ingenious grated stage, eerily lit from below. Elsewhere in the production Paul Duckworth's Judge Turpin flogs himself with a cat o'nine tails because he wants to have sex with his adopted daughter. It's not for the weak of stomach.

None of the cast blow the roof during musical numbers – accompanied by three excellent musicians who occasionally join the cast – but the speak-singing that typifies most songs feels more appropriate here than operatic flourishes.

Dean Nolan's turn as Pirelli is typically physical, as if King Louie had swung in from another production, adopted the persona of a professional wrestler and become a middling mafiosa. It's a hilarious, exhausting turn and is a touchstone for the grungy, slightly attitude that defines the production.

This dissonance – the melding of pop-y musical, exuberant black comedy and the desperate misery of 19th Century life – makes for a mixture almost as unusual as one of Mrs Lovett's pies. It's not wholly digestible and the love story between Johanna and Anthony may be half-baked, but there are many exquisite morsels to be enjoyed.