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Liam Tobin talks Sweeney Todd at the Everyman

Some children dream of being an astronaut, a train driver, a spy or a film star when they grow up.

For a young Liam Tobin, it was to be a butcher. And with this latest role one might suggest he’s finally achieved that ambition. Well, sort of.

“Ha! I didn’t think of that!” laughs the actor on a break from rehearsals for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Liverpool Everyman. “A butcher of a different nature perhaps.

“There used to be a mobile butcher’s who delivered meat around the houses in a van. It was the white coat I liked I think – until I found out what you actually had to do.”

There's no room for squeamishness here however, with Tobin wielding a cut-throat razor as the titular Demon Barber of Fleet Street in this homegrown production at the Hope Street theatre, appearing opposite Kacey Ainsworth (best-known as Little Mo in EastEnders) as Mrs Lovett, purveyor of ‘the worst pies in London’ - until her mysterious and monosyllabic new lodger moves in.

It’s a welcome return to the Everyman for the 46-year-old after two seasons in the theatre’s Rep Company, during which he played a host of characters, including – last year – one of three iterations of Peer Gynt in Robert Farquhar's brilliant Big I Am.

Was it then Gynt, the flawed but fantastical anti-hero of his own darkly funny legend, that led to Benjamin Barker?

Above: Liam Tobin in The Big I Am. Top: In the Liverpool Everyman. Photos by Gary Carlton

“I think it’s been brewing for a while in terms of the Everyman doing it,” he muses. “It was certainly in the air last year, as to either being, if the Rep had carried on, the musical they’d have done, or its own thing.

“But apparently as far back as the year before, it was kind of in the air in terms of Nick (director Nick Bagnall) wanting to do it.

“I was lucky to be asked fairly early on. And of course, I jumped at it. I love this place, I love working here, and having done two years at the Rep it was a fantastic experience. I hope it can return in some form one day, whether I’m a part of it or not, because I think it’s a great thing.

“But to have an opportunity to take on a part like this, in my own city, with a director I know and trust and was a no brainer!”

Sondheim’s tale is a noirish fable of revenge, but audiences can expect it to have a particularly dark and visceral feel at the Everyman where it is being staged in the round and with a pared back cast.

Tobin explains: “There’s humour in there, there’s fun to be had. But it is very dark – it’s about people with nothing, and desperate people.

“And an expression Nick uses, everyone in this play has got an angle, has got a scam, has got desire, has got ambition. With Sweeney it’s his blind drive to get revenge.

“What we’re doing is stripped back, with nine performers, four band, no costume changes really – maybe changes of a coat and a hat occasionally.

“As brilliant as it is if you do have the budget to do these massive productions with all these sets, you don’t actually need it. If you strip it away, then you’re left with a really strong story that can totally survive on its own merits.”

Sweeney Todd is another chance for Tobin to appear on stage in his home city.

Over the years he’s performed in nearly every theatre in Liverpool, as well as in the former Shakespeare Festival and with the inventive Spike Theatre Company in The Games which it took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012.

He returned to the Scottish capital last summer, this time with Benny, a one-man show about the late Benny Hill. A bit different to Sweeney Todd.

He laughs: “Very different! It came up yesterday actually as there was a bit where I chased Mrs Lovett, and Nick went, ‘oh I like that bit, a bit Dick Emery’. I said: ‘or Benny Hill’ and Tarek (Merchant, the musical director) started playing the chase music on the piano!”

Meanwhile being back on ‘home turf’ is particularly important to Tobin.

“It means more doesn’t it?” he says. “And it’s not just about your friends and family being able to see you, it’s mainly just about contributing to the city you live in, feeling part of the city.

“I’ve worked all over the place – and all over the place in Liverpool and would do so again. But I’ve always felt that this place is where I wanted to be in terms of the kind of work they do.”

In Fiddler on the Roof with Keddy Sutton and Pauline Daniels. Photo: Stephen Vaughan. Above: Sweeney Todd rehearsals with Paul Duckworth. Photo: Brian Roberts

Perhaps surprisingly, theatre wasn’t part of Tobin’s life growing up. He didn’t even see his first panto until he was in his 20s and went to support a friend in the cast.

He did theatre studies at A level and drama at university but says as a teenager hadn’t really felt able to articulate that acting was where he wanted to forge his career.

Having access to youth theatre companies like YEP (Young Everyman Playhouse), which was involved in the two Everyman Rep seasons, is important he believes: “It’s how you make that place accessible to people at a young age and say you can come and do this if you want. And that’s a way in to the world isn’t it? It’s so valuable.”

There aren’t any YEP performers in Sweeney Todd, but the cast does include some new faces as well as Liverpool favourites like fellow Rep alumni Paul Duckworth and Dean Nolan, and musical theatre veteran Emma Dears.

Although Tobin has sung in a number of shows, this is only his third full-blown musical, following Fiddler on the Roof and Paint Your Wagon. And definitely the trickiest of the trio.

“I’ve glad I had those two – I’m glad I didn’t go from nothing to this!”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is at Liverpool Everyman from until May 18. Tickets HERE

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