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)