Sweeney Todd, Trafalgar Studios

Doyle's demon barber goes straight for jugular
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The Independent Culture

Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's gory musical masterpiece, goes for the jugular with the surest aim when it is presented as a close-up chamber piece.

Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's gory musical masterpiece, goes for the jugular with the surest aim when it is presented as a close-up chamber piece.

This wonderfully fresh and fierce small-scale version directed and designed by John Doyle, which originated at Newbury's Watermill Theatre has landed in London for a run at the Trafalgar Studios.

The production kicks off with the Demon Barber's creepy resurrection from a coffin that remains centre-stage, fulfilling various functions, throughout. Dispensing with a detailed panorama of London, this staging immerses us in what looks like the operating theatre of a Victorian asylum.

Here the story of revenge and insanity, mass murder and its cannibalistic by-products is presented as though it were some endlessly recurring reenactment.

The boy Toby, who is the one mad survivor of the Todd ménage, is released from his straitjacket to become a spectator/participant.

Realism is ditched in favour of a brilliantly expressive symbolic approach. The splendid cast of nine double as musicians, their instruments becoming weird extensions of their characters' personalities, particularly the disturbed flute of Sam Kenyon's excellent Toby.

There is no barber's chair: instead, the throat-slittings are registered by a screaming whistle, a blinding red glare and a bucket of blood tipped into the coffin by some ironically appropriate figure. The fluidity of Doyle's directorial concept allows the characters to configure in dream-like diagrams of their underlying relationships.

The singing is not first-rate, but what the production sometimes lacks in technical finesse, it makes up in atmosphere, ensemble spirit, versatility, and psychological acumen.

Karen Mann is very funny as the pie-making Mrs Lovett, a desperate old would-be dolly bird who buffs up Todd's human-abattoir implements with the oblivious cheeriness of someone doing the dishes.

Paul Hegarty is a compellingly driven Sweeney, a man who starts off as a crusader against judicial hypocrisy and declines into an indiscrimate killer.

In an acute touch here, he offers his throat for Toby to slit at the end. This is true tragedy: Sweeney's recognition he has travelled way beyond redemption. Like the production as a whole, that detail offers a triumphantly new angle on musical masterpiece.

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