Theatre: Sweeney Todd

Went along to the Royal Exchange Theatre last night to see their production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’m familiar with the legend and with the plot of Sondheim’s musical version, and I’ve heard a lot of the music, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it performed.

General impression: absolutely stunning. There were one or two minor glitches in the sound, but the cast was superb, as was the small group of musicians up in the first level. There’s a lot of very dark humour along with the horror, but it requires good timing to make it work. The timing here was perfect, making the audience laugh even as they were flinching at the horror that underlay the story. Both the singing and acting were excellent, and David Birrell as Sweeney Todd pulled off the difficult trick of making a serial killer sympathetic.

The Exchange is a theatre in the round, in an amazing glass and steel capsule on the floor of the old exchange building. That imposes certain restrictions on how pieces can be staged — most importantly for this production, there is in essence only one stage level, with no below-stage space or real ability to build up a second level more than a couple of feet above the main stage level. Given that a major element in the plot is Sweeney Todd’s barber chair tipping right back to send a victim down a chute to the bakehouse on the floor below, some careful staging was going to be needed. The production team had done a wonderful job of symbolising the chute by running the chair back and forth along a track on the stage, which at the climax of one song results in an actual production line of chairs going back and forth as Sweeney settles into the routine of killing.

Coupled with this, in some scenes there are two different areas on the stage representing the barber shop upstairs and the bakery downstairs, with action going on in each, and characters running up and down the stairs between the two rooms by going out of one of the stage exits and back in through another. The sets are fairly minimal, if well-executed, consisting largely of items of furniture that are moved in and out on the track, or by the chorus in full view of the audience.

It’s a technique that requires willing suspension of disbelief from the audience, but when it works, as it does here, it results in an intense experience. This is enhanced because the physical space in the theatre capsule is quite small, putting everyone on the ground floor within a few feet of the stage. Possibly a little too close for one section of the front row, as they got a very close up view of the spurts of blood in one murder. :-)

The time period for this production has been brought forward from Victorian London to the Thatcherite era. It results in some anachronisms (it’s a long time since prisoners were transported to Australia), but it’s a good match for some of the social commentary in the play. It closes with a reprise of the main theme, with new verses warning the audience that any one of us could follow the same path as Sweeney, if pushed too far by injustice.

This is a superbly done production that puts together an excellent cast with an imaginative use of an unusual theatre space. I’m very fond of the Exchange, because it does this trick so well, but this was a particularly good example. It’s on until 30 November — go and see it if you’re in the area.

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