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Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange Theatre, Reviewed

Joan Davies has a new found love for the old Sondheim musical theatre classic

Written by . Published on November 6th 2013.

Sweeney Todd, Royal Exchange Theatre, Reviewed

ONE of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular musicals, Sweeney Todd is brought to the Royal Exchange Theatre via a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse.

I was curious to see how it could be transformed for a production in the round. Curious and a little sceptical. But it fits like a glove.

It could be something of an experiment. The Royal Exchange, unusually for a Manchester theatre, has never programmed Sondheim before. It’s done the odd musical of course, but few recently, and this one is co-produced with West Yorkshire Playhouse, home of the cavernous Quarry stage and auditorium which dwarfs Manchester’s intimate theatre-in-the-round. It’s been done cleverly, combining some key in-built production guarantees and an obvious love of the material.

This is an astoundingly good production. Every word is clear, every gesture meaningful. Key well-known songs are freshly delivered and the weaker elements thrive under the loving attention they receive. The performances capture both the comedy and the horror, as Sondheim intended.

Sweeney Todd at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Sweeney Todd, not his real name, returns to London fifteen years after being transported to Australia on a trumped up charge. Judge Turpin arranged this so he could take Todd’s wife. Todd has returned for revenge and, on discovering that his wife poisoned herself after her ordeal and that his daughter is now the judge’s ward, his determination is strengthened. He returns to his old trade as a skilled barber, teams up with dreadful pie-maker, Mrs Lovett, and the two soon discover a mutually beneficial plan.

All the performances are superb, but David Birrell as Todd and Gillian Bevan as Mrs Lovett could hardly be bettered. They imbue the characters with motivations we can believe in: Mrs Lovett fairly down-to-earth, grasping the opportunities she sees and Sweeney Todd with a thoroughly understandable desire to punish his persecutor, the one who stole his life.  

The closing first act number, a humorous discussion of the merits of different pie flavours – priest, poet, clerk – feeds their sexual attraction: there’s almost an air of a young couple falling for one another over a shared plan as they waltz through the kitchen and their ‘shopping list’.

Sweeney Todd at the Royal Exchange Theatre

The production comes with a track record. New West Yorkshire Playhouse director James Brining previously directed David Birrell as Todd in an award-winning Dundee production. WYP-experienced designer Colin Richmond takes us to seedy eighties London, Royal Exchange-experienced lighting designer Chris Davey and tour-experienced sound designer Richard Brooker, focus attention on what matters.

I’ve never spent so little time at a Royal Exchange production watching the audience. The sound is superb, with natural-sounding amplification centring on source.

The production opened at WYP and has now been pared down to fit the Royal Exchange space. Simon Curtis, the Royal Exchange’s Production Manager, deserves credit for his team’s success in negotiating such a difficult transfer, a ‘reimagining’ as they call it.

A directorial decision to reposition the play from Victorian to Thatcherite London creates a few niggles, but works to make the ideas more immediate and to encourage reflection; the misuse of power, the drive for revenge, the absence of morality when there’s money to be made, and the escalation of horror and inhumanity are not confined to one age, or even two.

Although a Sondheim fan, I had tired of the nausea inducing tale and avoided recent Sweeney Todd productions. I made an exception for the film, which suffered from the lack of a chorus, and thought I should do the same for The Royal Exchange. I was curious to see how it could be transformed for a production in the round. Curious and a little sceptical. But it fits like a glove.


Sweeney Todd at the Royal Exchange Theatre


The intimate setting accentuates the character’s everyday qualities; the audience, almost in the kitchen, is almost complicit. Well-paced direction and flowing chorus-led set changes allow a talented cast time to make every word and gesture count, and still come in at under three hours. It feels more like two.  It ends with a challenge to the audience to consider their own potential for evil in a society barriered to fairness and respect.

Manchester’s Library Theatre for many years held a reputation as a centre for Sondheim interpretations par excellence. This production shows why his work is so highly regarded: musicals to engage your brain as well as your emotions. Can we have more please? I expect it will become a sell-out, so book early. Just don’t stock the freezer with pies beforehand.

The Royal Exchange Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse production of ‘SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller’ with music and lyrics By Stephen Sondheim is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 30 November 2013


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