Sweeney Todd, the fictional barber known for cutting his victims’ throats before having them served up as the main course in the neighbouring pie shop, is a figure drawn from Victorian urban legend, and immortalised in the Penny Dreadfuls of the period. What Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed 1979 musical brings to the table is a large helping of motive and moral ambiguity, in the form of a tragic backstory involving a corrupt judge, and the rape of Sweeney’s beloved wife.
Vocally, the cast are very strong, and are supported by a talented (and tireless) band and conductor. The revolving set is elegantly conceived, and excellent and resourceful use is made of its multiple levels over the play’s two hour and forty five minute running time.
However, the production takes a while to become truly engaging. It is not until towards the end of the first act, when the play reaches its – ahem – meatier portions that it really gets into its stride. There are nonetheless some stellar performances, most notably Helena Wilson’s scene-stealing turn as Mrs Lovvett, Todd’s partner-in-crime, bringing an animated humour to the role which serves to really drive the play forward. Hannah Bristow is at turns hilarious and heart-wrenching as Tobias Ragg, and Nathan Ellis portrays Anthony Hope with an affectingly awkward and naïve quality appropriate to one of the play’s only indisputably moral characters. Andy Laithwaite’s performance as Sweeney is strong overall, but during his character’s less active moments he has a frustrating tendency to lapse into blankness, with little sense of any darker emotions bubbling underneath. This ultimately reduces the impact of his otherwise excellent performance; his interactions – both dramatic and harmonic – with his various “customers,” and particularly Chris Bland’s Judge Turpin are compelling.
Sweeney Todd’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and, once the interminable first third or so is out of the way, it is incredibly entertaining, constituting a fascinating decline from the darkly humorous to the just plain dark. None of its faults are insurmountable, nor do they hold it back from being ultimately an excellent show.