Sweeney Todd review – raging underdog adds politics to the pies

Everyman, Liverpool
Nick Bagnall’s ingenious revival reminds us that Sondheim’s musical thriller is also a savagely political piece about injustice

Forty years after its premiere, Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece is an established classic. Although it has been performed everywhere from opera houses to pie shops, it seems right that it is revived at the Everyman, since this was one of the first theatres to stage the Christopher Bond play that inspired the musical. Nick Bagnall’s production – with just nine actors and four musicians – ensures that Bond’s intention to give the melodrama a political edge is suitably honoured.

The great thing about this musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler, is that it can take on so many different colours. I am sometimes reminded of Britten’s Peter Grimes in that Sondheim’s music and lyrics reveal an intuitive sympathy with a tortured outsider. But Bagnall has revealed that he read Friedrich Engels’ book on the English working class in preparation, and the result is a production that emphasises the timeless exploitation of the underdog.

“Is there no justice in this city?” someone cries, and Liam Tobin’s boiler-suited Sweeney is clearly driven by social rage in his desire to avenge the abduction of his wife by those who dispense the law. In a telling detail, the pseudo-Italian barber, Pirelli, also whips his enslaved assistant in a manner that suggests the class dynamic of Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.

Kacey Ainsworth in Sweeney Todd
Outstanding ... Kacey Ainsworth (Mrs Lovett) in Sweeney Todd. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Bagnall’s production makes a virtue of its intimacy. The musicians, under the direction of Tarek Merchant, become part of the action with the violinist, Samantha Norman, sitting alongside the sadistic Judge Turpin as he hymns Pretty Women. The actors use a hooked gaff to propel the revolving stage as if reminding us that this is a society based on manual labour. While the stress is on social commentary, the ghoulish nature of the narrative is also underscored: Sweeney’s victims are dispatched to the subterranean bakehouse in the disturbing form of bucketfuls of clotted blood. There may have been better-sung productions, but few quite so ingenious.

The main surprise is the realisation that it is the pie shop’s Mrs Lovett who drives the action forward and who is as much the focus as Sweeney, but that is partly because of an outstanding performance by Kacey Ainsworth. Constantly raising an abusive finger to an unseen rival, she reminds us that Mrs Lovett is first of all an aggressive, hard-headed businesswoman. But Ainsworth captures perfectly the character’s willing complicity in murder for both profit and pleasure. The highlight of the evening is her rendering of By the Sea, in which Ainsworth rapturously evokes all the imagined joys of the seaside, from lazy sun-lounging to limitless sex.

Tobin conveys Sweeney’s vengeful ferocity and hint of monomania beneath a deceptively ordinary surface but, while he acts the role vigorously, he doesn’t yet do full justice to its musical richness. There is good support from Paul Duckworth as a smoothly rapacious Judge Turpin, Mark Rice-Oxley as a bent beadle who looks as if he might have stepped out of Line of Duty, and Dean Nolan as a Pirelli who is both bully and flamboyant showman.

Sondheim always classifies the work as a “musical thriller”. It is that but, as this production reminds us, it is also a savagely political piece about the high price society pays for perpetuating injustice and inequality.

• At Everyman, Liverpool, until 18 May.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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