Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2011)

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street production photos

Elizabeth Newman's new production of Sondheim's classic dark melodrama, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, utilises actor-musicians and a concept influenced by the American CSI TV programmes about forensic scientists.

Based on the famous character from a Victorian "penny dreadful" horror comic, Sweeney Todd is a barber based in Fleet Street in London who murders his customers for his neighbour Mrs Lovett to turn into pies to sell in her shop. Wheeler and Sondheim's version turns Todd's murderous rampage into an act of revenge against the world but particularly against Judge Turpin, who transported Todd for life on a false charge in order to seduce his wife.

Newman's concept, along with Lucy Sierra's set design and Mary Horan's costume designs, takes the show visually out of Victorian London with a set made from steel decking on different levels, principal costumes mostly suggestive of the earlier period and chorus costumes of overalls and metal chains with whistles on them. On top of this is the actor-musician style, which is fairly subtle for most of the time as the actors only play in the background when they are not in a scene, but occasionally they whip out a flute or a trombone in the middle of a scene and play a few notes.

Neither concept adds anything to the meaning of the show. The CSI idea only relates to the story in that murders are committed; other than that it is nothing more than a shallow director's conceit that gives back less than it takes away. There are further deliberate anachronisms—such as the barber's chair arriving an an Amazon box—that are really just cheap jokes that distract from the richness of the original material.

Some elements of the staging could be applauded for their imagination if they were used by a tiny fringe company with no budget but on the main stage of a major regional theatre look strange. Todd's "chair fit for a king" is a cheap secretary's chair that requires his victims to fall out of it and crawl to the entrance to a long steel ramp in their death throes. Mrs Lovett's harmonium, a "fine instrument" according to Beadle Bamford, is one of those toy plastic electronic keyboards that are played like a guitar (although Lloyd Gorman gets some genuine fun from using it).

The one time the actor musician concept seriously intrudes into the action is with the character of Todd. As a violinist, his box of razors is replaced by a violin case containing a violin and differently-sized bows as his razors. This is an idea that appears fine on paper and even fits nicely with some of the lines ("At last, my arm is complete again!") but overall a man holding a violin bow has rather less impact than the glint of light off a sharpened razor with a silver handle. When the razors are first returned to him, the dialogue doesn't mention what they are at all and so the fact that they aren't what they are supposed to be is just confusing.

Where the production is seriously let down is in the sound. It is difficult to understand why a trained singer stood only a few feet away from the audience needs to have a mic at all, but sound designer Andy Smith has all of the mics turned up so high that they often distort, even during the dialogue. The overall sound mix is poorly balanced and very muddy, which destroys the subtleties of this glorious music and makes some of the words indistinct. Oddly, two of the chorus sing into handheld radio mics while none of the others has a mic at all.

As Todd, Tobias Beer has a good singing voice and at certain moments really grasps the material, but a lot of the time his performance comes across as empty posturing. Ruth Alexander Rubin, however, is a perfect choice as Mrs Lovett and is superb in the role. There are some lovely performances from John Addison as Anthony and Adam Barlow as Toby, while Mark Heenehan has the presence and depth of vocal tone perfect for the Judge, pretty Sarah Vezmar is a good Joanna and there is a powerful performance from Barbara Hockaday in the small but crucial role of the beggar woman. Clara Darcy does a decent job of playing Pirelli, but she is obviously a woman playing a man which seems an odd choice.

While the director's concept is deeply-flawed and there are serious technical problems, that doesn't mean that this isn't a production worth seeing. Sondheim's beautifully dark and atmospheric music and blackly comic lyrics survive the sound problems and some thin orchestrations, and great performances combined with nice direction of some individual scenes have created some very good comic or powerfully dramatic moments that break through the concept and help the audience to forget that it is there, threatening to obstruct their view of the real show.

Running until 2nd July

Reviewer: David Chadderton