Everyman Theatre, Liverpool – until 18 May 2019
Think Sweeney Todd and think gothic Victoriana; think Angela Lansbury camp, or a brooding Johnny Depp – there’s a lot of stylistic shorthand that comes with Stephen Sondheim’s take on the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
So get down to the Everyman, and prepare to start all over again – and love every minute. Associate director Nick Bagnall’s vision is unique, intense and exciting, bringing out the very best of the venue and its performers.
Set in the round and with the cast in anachronistic, contemporary costume, his stripped-back Sweeney packs all the punch fans of the modern American opera would want and expect, and additionally brings so much more to the table.
Musical director Tarek Merchant leads a four-piece band that not only provides a deceptively big, and faultless, sound, but the musicians also weave in and out the production as ‘extras’ as called for.
From the moment the nine-strong cast assemble to position themselves around a large, circular grid that comprises the set and begin The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, the intimacy and sense of urgency is arresting.
Among a mostly local cast stands a notable outsider – and bona fide EastEnder (Little Mo, as was) – in Kacey Ainsworth as Mrs Lovett. Too on the nose? Not a bit, it turns out. As the proprietor of the café with the worst pies in London, Ainsworth nails every scene, perfectly navigating black comedy and the drama of blacker misdeeds. Liam Tobin, a veteran of the Everyman’s ensemble experiment of recent years, takes the lead as Sweeney and carries the role with aplomb. They make excellent partners in crime.
But all round this is an ensemble that truly convinces and connects, both with themselves and with the audience. Such a familiar face on the Liverpool stage, Paul Duckworth proves he is still full of surprises, playing the abominable Judge Turpin with gravitas and a mean bass. Bryan Parry as wide-eyed naif Anthony and Keziah Joseph as Johanna give a musical theatre polish and presence to the central romance. Emma Dears, Shiv Rabheru, Dean Nolan and Mark Rice-Oxley complete a quite outstanding cast.
Fight director Kev McCurdy deserves a mention, too, for some of the most truly convincing tussles I can remember seeing on stage – Sweeney’s fight to the death with nemesis Pirelli (a scenery-chewing Nolan) busts some genuinely wince-inducing moves. And lighting designer Mark Jonathan illuminates stark and striking scenes throughout – Judge Turpin’s creepy Mea Culpa, multiple shadows cast against a cross, is a chilling highlight.
It’s not that the cast and crew make what they’re doing look easy, or fun; the gritty hustle and fight for survival on the streets of London is palpable with every turn of the rusty, revolving grid of a set, which the cast rotate themselves to portray everything from Mrs Lovett’s bakehouse to Bedlam.
The gore is more symbolic than graphic; there are no gimmicks necessary to ram the story home. The balance of comedy and tragedy is damn near perfect, and this production has an unforgettable, gutsy intensity that easily places it among the Everyman’s finest.
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