11/11/13 - 'Sweeney Todd' at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Nothing can quite compare to the whirling words and dark wit of Stephen Sondheim's work, and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is no different.  Arguably the best known of his musicals and with lots of songs that everyone will recognise, it was exciting to finally see it onstage - I'm a big fan of the 2007 film (Johnny and Helena are always a winning combo) and I sadly missed Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton taking a stab - excuse the pun - at this seminal material.

Under James Brining's direction, this production sees the Demon Barber terrorising the throats of '70s or '80s London rather than sticking to the traditional Victorian setting.  Although this obviously creates a few anomalies within the lyrics, I personally thought it was incredibly effective and really gave a new meaning to the 'waste not, want not' attitude of Thatcherite Britain.  The update makes the story possibly even more unsettling; the idea of the rich preying upon a powerless underclass of society is even stronger in this era, and the gorey throat-slitting is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who was at large around the same time.

David Birrell is stunningly terrifying as the titular Todd; his singing voice is strong, every word clear and all the more chilling for it.  Despite the fact that his motives are clearly questionable, I found it shockingly easy to sympathise and that's a testimony to Birrell's amazing performance.  His peroxide partner in crime and thrifty pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett, played by Gillian Bevan, is a fascinating mix of humanity ('By The Sea' being the obvious example) and unfeeling flippancy towards the idea of casual cannibalism.  The chemistry between the two is breath-taking, particularly in the darkly comic and undoubtedly sexualised rendition of 'A Little Priest' which closes the first act.  There's almost a feeling of a young couple playfully teasing each other and it's easy to forget the morbid meaning of their words.


The performances of the supporting cast were the perfect compliment to the show's stars.  Niamh Perry makes a beautiful doll-like Johanna (although for some bizarre reason she reminded me a lot of pre-breakdown Lindsay Lohan in her wig), partnered with the Michael Peavoy's charmingly eager Anthony.  Ben Stott is lovely as the endearingly loyal Toby who unwittingly becomes embroiled in the dire duo's evil doings after they liberate him from Sebastien Torkia's slimy con-artist 'Pirelli'.

The Royal Exchange is probably one of my favourite theatres, and this production only deepened this belief in my head.  Theatre-in-the-round is tricky to pull off and I was fascinated to see how the production would deal with this format.  The intimacy between the lower tier of seating and the stage increases the tension within the theatre.  I was seated on the end of a row right next to one of the main entrances used by the cast which certainly added an extra element to the performance.

If you're around Manchester and fancy a truly thrilling theatrical experience, get yourself to the Royal Exchange for this incredible production (details can be found here).  I went a couple of days after Hallowe'en so it felt particularly fitting, but it's running right up to end of November and is not to be missed.

Will you be making the journey to Manchester for this production?  I recommend it!