A slice of the demon barber

David Birrell as Sweeney Todd (left) and Don Gallagher as Judge Turpin in SWEENEY TODD (Royal Exchange Theatre until 30 Novmeber 2013). Photo - Jonathan Keenan
David Birrell as Sweeney Todd (left) and Don Gallagher as Judge Turpin in SWEENEY TODD (Royal Exchange Theatre until 30 Novmeber 2013). Photo - Jonathan Keenan

Review: “Sweeney Todd”, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until November 30th.

Box office: 0161 8339833. Website: www.royalexchange.co.uk

David Birrell as Sweeney Todd in SWEENEY TODD (Royal Exchange Theatre until 30 Novmeber 2013). Photo - Jonathan Keenan

David Birrell as Sweeney Todd in SWEENEY TODD (Royal Exchange Theatre until 30 Novmeber 2013). Photo - Jonathan Keenan

Is it a musical? Is it an opera? The Royal Exchange’s programme calls it a musical thriller, but Stephen Sondheim, the composer, calls it a dark operetta.

Whatever! It is a wonderfully dark and comic experience and the Royal Exchange (in a co-production with Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse and Welsh National Opera) gave us a super evening of entertainment. I find myself wondering why I can enthuse about a gruesome tale of murder and cannibalism, but it is so wickedly funny.

Director James Brining opens with the inhabitants of the Insane Asylum wandering around, which gives a kind of strange reality (I am old enough to remember Peter Brooks’ Marat/Sade!). The whole thing depends on the performance of the two principals, Sweeney (David Birrell) and Mrs Lovett (Gillian Bevan) and they are great, both at singing and acting.

Michael Peavoy is also good as the young hero Anthony Hope and a very strong cast of singers Barbara Drenham as the Beggar Woman with a crucial secret, Don Gallagher as the evil Judge, Sevan Stephan as the oily Beadle, and Niamh Perry as the young heroine, Johanna, and a touching rendition of the young boy Tobias by Ben Stott add to the production.

However, it is the music I love (I’ve seen it several times). I took a friend who is a big musical fan, but had never seen Sweeney Todd before and she loved it. The older ladies sitting behind me, who fidgeted with sweets, commented that the music was a bit discordant for their taste, and put on their coats and shuffled out before the end, in my view missed the whole point, but I was delighted that the rest of a pleasingly young audience gave a rousing ovation at the end.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics are amazing. “Johanna”, “Pretty Women” and “London” and, best of all “A little bit of Priest” as Sweeney and Lovett discuss their plans for disposing of the bodies, and this time I enjoyed the poignant “By the Sea”. Having seen a “live” filmed version of a Verdi opera a few days before, I was impressed by the complexity of the quartets, duets and trios as well as some marvellous chorus singing. Much credit must go to Musical director George Dyer and his musicians. The staging is very clever. My only disappointment is that I cannot drive over to Leeds and see how Brining produced it such a different space. The West Yorkshire Playhouse is what I can only describe as a wonderful modern version of an Anglo Saxon Preaching place, a segment of a circle and the Exchange is fully in the round.

Catch it now at the Exchange and I have heard that there is going to be a production in Clitheroe next year. I shall be waiting. The Exchange’s Christmas production is That Day We Sang, by Victoria Wood, starting at the beginning of December.

Pippa Munro Hebden

David Birrell as Sweeney Todd. Photo: Jonathan Keenan.

David Birrell as Sweeney Todd (left) and Don Gallagher as Judge Turpin. Photo: Jonathan Keenan.