There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit!
And the vermin of the world inhabit it…
Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is probably the closest a musical could come to being an opera, in fact I’d find it hard to explain why it isn’t one. It’s a bravura piece of writing with enormous scope, technically hugely demanding, a piece of grand guignol with heart, bleak and unafraid. It doesn’t do anything by halves and nor should any company who attempt it. You either succeed magnificently or fall flat on your face. I love it very much.
Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber of Fleet street” who despatched his victims from his barber’s chair as an act of vengeance against a world which had wronged him terribly and made the bodies into pies, with the help of his accomplice Mrs Lovett, began life in a Victorian penny dreadful. It took hold of the Victorian imagination immediately as stories which play on people’s fears often do. Worries about what might be inside the cheap pies that people bought on the street have modern resonances and anyone who has seen a cut throat razor knows why it received and kept its nickname. Sondheim has added a strange poignancy and beauty to the shocking thrills of the original story.
As soon as I sat down in my front row seat to be faced with a bleak collection of mentally ill people who had been discarded by society, eking out their day to the sound of Karen Carpenter’s angelic voice singing Close To You over and over again, crackling out from a rickety sound system I knew that I need have no worries. It was an inspired choice. The strange juxtaposition of beauty and emptiness which lies at the heart of the score had been understood. The chilling opening number sprung directly out of this world and the tone was set.
The musicianship is very fine throughout and there is some strong singing and committed character work from the whole company. Sweeney and Mrs Lovett are the kind of virtuoso parts which you need to cast before you know whether you have a show or not, parts which an actor will wait all their lives to play. David Birrell is mesmerising as Sweeney and attacks the part with great presence and energy. Vocally he is impeccable. Gillian Bevan gives us a very truthful and astute reading of Mrs Lovett. I could understand exactly why she was doing what she did while at the same time being appalled by it. The pair are a great team and strike sparks off each other, just as they should. There is humour in the song Priest which forms the climax of the first half, but not as much as there can be. In this production it is very clear that the energy and black humour of it springs directly out of the magnificent sequence before it, Epithany, when Sweeney Todd finally declares vengeance on the world and his path of violence and amorality is set. There is a deep sexual tension and desperation behind Mrs Lovett’s invention. Her idea for the pie shop grows out of her own fear of Sweeney and her obsession with someone who is now clearly a monster and this worked perfectly for me. I also feel that I want to single out Don Gallagher’s chilling performance as Judge Turpin and Michael Peavoy is very touching as Anthony Hope but the whole cast are relishing their chance to tackle this score and their characterisation and concentration is a joy to watch.
The design by Colin Richmond sets the action in a grubby, almost deserted hinterland of ship containers and grey cold walls, a perfect backdrop full of telling detail. I loved the pie shop counter full of things that you really should not eat- every godforsaken cafe you have ever looked into through the window before you walked on past. The musical direction by George Dyer, a difficult task on a Sondheim show of this kind, is best judged by the flawless delivery of the cast. He must be very proud of them. James Brining has made a brave and accomplished start to his time as artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I am very fond of the Quarry theatre in particular and I am heartened to see that someone has taken it on who clearly understands what it can do. The stage of the Quarry theatre is made for a show like this.
As I walked into the auditorium the usher helped me past a lot of young people. “We’ve got two school parties in” she said apologetically, unsure of how I would react. I grinned at her. “Don’t worry- I think it will shut them up.” It did a lot more than that. At the end of the show those young people were cheering, some of them were on their feet and a few of them will have become theatregoers for life.
Sweeney wishes the world away,
Sweeney’s weeping for yesterday,
Hugging the blade, waiting the years,
Hearing the music that nobody hears.
Sweeney waits in the parlor hall,
Sweeney leans on the office wall.