Tasty enough to whet your appetite

Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, is back in business and sharpening his razor for action. Edward Seckerson salutes a new touring production of Stephen Sondheim's `musical thriller' that really cuts to the heart of the matter.

Meat - on and off the bone - is once again under scrutiny. In Leeds, where David McVicar's triumphant new staging of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opened on Saturday, the sound of music is the sound of "man devouring man". And the unkindest cuts of all are those that make you laugh the loudest and then shame you for doing so.

Sondheim's "musical thriller" is a grim and disquieting romp with an underbelly as rancid and unsavoury as the dubious contents of Mrs Lovett's pies. But ever since Angela Lansbury strutted her considerable stuff on Broadway back in 1979 - the orange hair as loud and freakish as the vowels - imitation and the pursuit of parody have proved a bigger threat than we know to Sweeney Todd's enduring power. McVicar's considerable achievement for Opera North, then, lies in a seriousness of purpose, a dark and uncomfortable truthfulness that belies the comedy and thus makes the belly laughs all the more unsettling. Welcome to the abattoir. Welcome to old London town, where "morals aren't worth what a pig could spit". The people are just as you've seen them in pictures and engravings, but they're real. You recognise them, you know them. "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," they chorus, their accusing faces bleached by unforgiving white light. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd... or else.

When Sweeney turns his razor on us at the close of Act 1, it's a challenge - to join him, to share in his obsession, his crusade, his terrible lust for revenge. This is his moment, his "Epiphany", and we're a part of it: "You, sir, how about a shave... You, sir, welcome to the grave..." We are all observers, voyeurs, in this unseemly spectacle. We are shocked, morally outraged, by what we see, but still we come to gawp. Rather like the crowds who stood and watched the black plastic bags being taken from Fred and Rosemary West's house. Sweeney and Mrs Lovett are cosier. Or are they?

McVicar's production is big on voyeurism. His chorus, collectively and as individuals, are the watchers and witnesses, the tabloid press in us all, stealing silently through the action, spying on the main protagonists, catching them in their every compromise. Just as they catch you, the audience, with the last laugh still stuck in your throat. No matter how intimate the scene, there's always a shadowy figure, a pair of watchful eyes (like a hidden camera) close by. In one particularly chilling instance, entirely of McVicar's making, Johanna (Lucy Schaufer), the corrupt Judge Turpin's ward, is seen in her ablutions under the intrusive gaze of a manservant while the "good" judge himself undergoes chastisement at the hands of a hired tormentor. The sexual charge between these two actions - the violation of Johanna's maidenhood and the masochistic judge's self-debasement - goes to the very heart of the play's tortuous morality.

And the play's the thing. More than in any other production of Sweeney Todd that I have seen (and I've seen a few), McVicar really honours the seamless relationship between Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's marvellous score. The tedious debate as to what kind of music-theatre Sweeney Todd actually represents is finally put to rest, the mix of voices ("show" and "operatic") as natural as Sondheim will always have wished them to be. It was a brave decision to play the piece without amplification and it is a tribute to the skill of the company and the self-evident insistence, on McVicar's part, that the text be played for truth rather than cheap thrills and cheaper laughs, that so little is lost. Beverley Klein's splendid Mrs Lovett owes little or nothing to previous incumbents of the role, being a law entirely unto herself. She vacillates deliciously between charm and mumsiness and a hard-nosed self-preservation. The voice itself changes register and complexion as sharply and as readily as her capricious nature: genteel soprano for the "respectable" shopkeeper with airs; Marie Lloyd belt for the fishwife.

The bitterness runs deep in Steven Page's Todd - as disturbed and disturbing and well-sung a portrayal of the role as we have any right to expect. But again, it's the honesty, the believability, of his performance that gives it its edge. Confined, so to speak, inside designer Michael Vale's oppressive iron foundry of a set, the interior of his barber shop gliding downstage as if at any moment to deposit his victims in our laps, Page puts the distraction of the vengeful Todd into top gear, so driven, so single-minded that even the cosy banter with Mrs Lovett (not least the uproarious "Have a Little Priest" duet) is patently manipulative.

And, as Sondheim's insistent ostinatos drive Todd ever closer to self- destruction, you become increasingly aware of conductor James Holmes's sterling contribution to the success of the evening. It grips like an industrial vice. Sweeney finally offers his throat to the hapless Tobias (Christopher Saunders, sounding for all the world as if he hails from Broadway and not the Queensland Opera) and the factory whistle screams its last, leaving no doubt in anybody's mind that for "musical thriller" we can now substitute "masterpiece" and salute a production fully worthy of it.

In rep to 31 Jan, Leeds Grand Theatre (0113-222 6222), then touring to Manchester, Nottingham, Hull, Newcastle and London (QEH 30 March)

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

    £300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

    High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

    £70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

    Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

    Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

    £400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits