Review: Sweeney Todd – at Everyman Theatre Liverpool

Photo: Marc Brenner

By Nigel Smith

THE story of Sweeney Todd is a grim tale about desperate people living through desperate times. Director Nick Bagnall clearly felt that its themes of social deprivation and abuses of both personal and political power speak to our time as much as to the Victorian London of its original setting.

Bagnall has a preference for stripping work back to its bare bones and highlighting the gritty heart of it, and Sondheim’s treatment of the story offers plenty of opportunity for this approach. Working together with musical director Tarek Merchant, they have scaled the production down to a cast of nine and a four-piece band. In the programme note, Merchant explains that he has steered away from putting a stamp on the production, instead aiming to strip away the gloss.

Where the film adaptation swelled Jonathan Tunick’s original arrangements for 26 musicians to a full scale symphonic orchestration, Merchant has gone in the opposite direction, distilling everything down to its raw musical essence. It’s a technique that he favours because it highlights the edginess of the musical writing and pushes the sharp dialogue to the fore.

The Everyman stage has once more been set in the round, with Michael Vale’s design taking the form of a circular steel mesh grid that serves as a revolve occupying much of the stage area. Lighting designer Mark Jonathan told me that Vale had given him a huge gift here, enabling him to flood the action with light from beneath the stage, adding grotesque contrast and shadows to the already stark appearance.

The focus in casting appears to have been finding actors who can sing, rather than going all out for big voices. The vocal performances have a rawness to them that fits with Tarek Merchant’s intentionally glossless approach to the score. Meanwhile Nick Bagnall has drawn larger than life characterisations from them all.

Kacey Ainsworth is deliciously manipulative as Mrs Lovett, the pie-maker who wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the supermarket horsemeat scandal. It’s hard not to draw parallels with Lady Macbeth as she wheedles Benjamin Barker (alias Sweeney Todd) into her way of thinking. Liam Tobin gives a deeply tragic reading of Barker/Todd, as we watch him spiral through loss and despair into an ultimately fatal life of crime.

Theirs is not the only good double-act on stage – there are quite a few. Shiv Rabheru is gleefully innocent as the simpleton Tobias Ragg, working opposite his master, the second-rate barber Pirelli, who is played with characteristic athleticism by Dean Nolan. Keziah Joseph offers more childish innocence than teenage charm in her Johanna, Barker’s estranged daughter, who is the love interest for Anthony Hope. Anthony is played here by Bryan Parry, who arguably delivers the strongest vocal performance of the evening.

Another strong pairing is Paul Duckworth’s slimy, sneering Judge Turpin and his easily led cohort Beadle Bamford, played with considerable wit by Mark Rice-Oxley. Wandering alone among these twosomes is Emma Dears as the Beggar Woman, who seems to know Benjamin barker from somewhere before. She too is in fine voice, and ultimately leads the story to its tragic, corpse-strewn conclusion.

Merchant’s lean, nimble arrangement of the score is mostly played out from one corner of the stage but the individual instrumentalists occasionally mingle with the cast, bolstering out the chorus scenes, especially in the recurrent Ballad of Sweeney Todd that moves the narrative on from scene to scene.

This production certainly hits its avowed target in terms of grit and social comment, but it still manages to entertain too, and the deceptively small cast succeed in building some big dramatic and musical climaxes in all the right places, giving the show a satisfying emotional shape.

If you want to attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd, then it’s playing at the Everyman until 18th May.