Sweeney Todd

The story of Sweeney Todd is strange and confusing. In Dave Moore’s brilliant 2006 adaptation for the BBC, where Ray Winstone does his business on an 18th century Fleet Street, Mrs. Lovett’s hot meat pies are more than tempting.

Watching Winstone slice up his customers, packing their flesh into dense pastry, I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who began to feel genuinely hungry. It is from this central, visceral unease – a glitch in the unholy trinity of sex, death and meat – that the story derives its energy.

Half-displacing the tale into a sterile, medical modernity, Emily Lim (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Under Milk Wood) frames this problem in an altogether new way, as Todd’s beloved razors become surgical scalpels, customers are shaved in wheel-chairs, and ale is dispensed from an IV drip. This is not simply a cheap analogy (Todd remains an 18th century barber), but rather a deliberate juxtaposition and re-negotiation of story and setting.

Questionable mockney accent aside, Jonathan Webb carries the tension well in the title role, his growing madness and blood-lust visible in the contortions of his face.

Harriet Madeley is rather less convincing as Mrs. Lovett, performing a little too much in the shadow of Helen Bonham Carter. Indeed, there is more irony than intended in Todd’s contention that, unlike pork or beef, an actor pie “always arrives overdone”.

She is held up by well-choreographed action, and a more than competent supporting cast, along with a strong 14-piece band under the direction of Tom Brady (“The Last Five Years”).

In a production where Mrs. Lovett’s pies are about as tempting as supermarket sausages, some of the queasy energy of the original is inevitably sacrificed – reminded constantly of blood, bile and hospital food, one is more likely to vomit than to experience the strange hunger that has always marked this story’s best adaptations. Even so, it is admirably fresh and entertaining, and certainly deserves to be seen. Just make sure to eat dinner beforehand.

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Three Stars