Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a musical that you just can’t get enough of, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Every company does it differently, and in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s case, it makes the play as hauntingly relevant and gory as when it first opened on Broadway in 1979. Director James Brining and set designer Colin Richmond create a world that is both captivating and terrifying, turning the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre into a portal to a world not too different from our own.
In case you don’t already know the story of Sweeney Todd, it is the tale of a barber named Benjamin Barker who gets transported to Botany Bay on false charges, and returns many years later to find his old life in tatters, with his wife supposedly dead and his daughter under the ‘protection’ of the grotesque Judge Turpin. Barker, now under the alias Sweeney Todd, meets pie shop owner Mrs Lovett and rents an old building which he turns into his barber shop. The two form a devious plan which leads them on a bloody rampage and ultimately to the truth, offering a glimpse into the mechanics behind lust, greed and revenge, and the consequences to be had as a result of each.
The original production was set in the dark, gothic streets of Victorian London. In this particular production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the fantastic creative team behind it opted to go for a more contemporary setting, making extensive use of levels and set pieces to create some very interesting imagery. For example, Sweeney’s shop was situated inside an old shipping container, perhaps representing how the character is contained inside his own world, where his sole focus is revenge. Johanna’s room was also in a shipping container on the other side of the stage, representing how she has been trapped for most of her life with no way of escape.
The imagery generated by these boxy shapes helps to convey the production’s main idea: that we all have our own little worlds that we inhabit, and external factors often change these worlds and upset the balance. Sweeney Todd is an incredibly versatile production in general, as companies have a lot of flexibility to work with in order to bring out the musical’s main themes, and this was something that the team at the West Yorkshire Playhouse had certainly thought about. Combine this attention to detail along with the lavish sets and incredibly strong characters, and you’ve got an amazing production.
Even if you’ve seen Sweeney Todd before – I have seen it twice now – then there’s no reason that you can’t see it again. It’s interesting to see how different companies approach the production, and with that in mind, I couldn’t recommend the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s interpretation of it even more. It’s dark, electric and touchingly relevant to things happening in the world we live in today.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 26 October. For more information and tickets, see the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.