Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical masterpiece turns the big 4-0 this year, and that alone would be a good enough reason for this spare and visceral revival.
But it’s also particularly apt that the Everyman should stage Sweeney Todd as Sondheim found inspiration for his flawed anti-hero in the play of the same name by Chris Bond.
Bond was resident dramatist at the Vic in Stoke on Trent when he penned his Sweeney Todd, a more conflicted and complex version of the vengeful villain than had stalked the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’.
The playwright later went on to spend three seasons as artistic director in Hope Street, and a further three at the Playhouse.
There’s certainly nothing overtly Victorian in director Nick Bagnall’s vision; the characters wear modern dress and Michael Vale’s sparse set – a clockface of bentwood chairs surrounding a metal grid revolve, has an industrial feel complete with glowing furnaces as the Fleet Street ovens are cranked up.
But we’re still deep in society’s underbelly where the struggle for survival is very real, and injustice is rife.
With a nine-strong cast and just four musicians, this Sweeney Todd is less about big spectacle and more about intimate storytelling – and it doesn’t get much more intimate than the Everyman’s theatre-in-the-round where the audience is itself in the thick of the action.
Despite the modest numbers, the cast produce moments of powerful choral work and the pared back nature of the production means there’s an extra clarity to Sondheim’s demanding counterpoint-infused score and his wily lyrics. There’s certainly nowhere to hide.
Musical director Tarek Merchant himself opens the Dies Irae prologue from his keyboard, a lone voice calling on the room to ‘attend the tale of Sweeney Todd’, while the clarinettist, violinist and bass/trumpet players all come out from behind their stands to populate the stage during the evening.
Last season Liam Tobin played a coke-snorting, TV evangelist Peer Gynt with wild-eyed relish. Here, as Benjamin Barker the barber bent on revenging a life, wife and daughter lost, he mutates during the evening from glowering, monosyllabic presence to simmering, psychopathic serial throat-slitter.
Todd’s name may be in the title, but in many ways Sondheim’s greatest creation is Mrs Lovett, and Kacey Ainsworth (above) knocks it out of the park with a moreish performance as the grisly pie maker struggling to earn a crust until her new lodger provides her with an unexpected source of ingredients.
Her Mrs L is in turns brutish, playful, wistful and imperious – and never less than transfixing.
This is a strong ensemble cast, and there are some lovely vignettes, not least Shiv Rabheru as the eager-to-please Toby and Mark Rice-Oxley’s brilliantly poncy, petty bureaucratic Beadle Bamford, while Bryan Parry (Anthony) and Emma Dears as the old woman deliver powerful vocals.
While it’s certainly not as slick as some Sweeneys, the Everyman’s demon barber of Fleet Street is still a deliciously dark slice of drama.