Sweeney Todd - the demon barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd is a mostly fictional tale emanating from the early 19th century, which may have begun life in a British penny dreadful before transforming later into a dramatic play, which then created the foundations of Stephen Sondheim's modern musical version. The story depicts the return of Todd (a pseudonym) from a long term spate in prison to find his wife missing and his daughter Johanna kidnapped and placed to ward in the home of Todd's former nemesis the devilishly fiendish Judge Turpin, played with appropriate malevolence by the constantly outstanding Barry McGovern. Turpin has designs on the young Johanna (Lisa Lambe) and Todd burning in a sea of revenge has equally sinister designs on Turpin. It is in this conflicting and turbulent premise that the entire plotting of the play takes shape as it traverses a series of showy spectacles that culminate in a grand demonic conclusion.

This production is a fervent exploration of the darker aspects of the Sweeny Todd legend, with Selina Cartmell's direction a science in classic gothic imagery. The stage exudes an amalgamation of influences from a punkish steely exterior, beholding the contemporary British industrialist tradition, to a shadowy and beautiful internal set decoration submerged in a soft smoky light. The staging is pivotal to the overall power of the production as the industrial setting compliments well the sonorous Sondheim musical script which is, at its heart, a soaring exploration of darkly love and death in a world of sinister and subversive figures with very few moral redeeming features.     

Cartmell's vision of the play sufficiently captures the power of the score which is laced with lost love and anguish as Todd dissolves from his humane fatherly anti-hero towards a demonised murdering barber destroyed by thoughts of vengeance and hatred and lost to his former familial world. David Shannon broods superbly as Todd etching faint glimmers of the submerged father in melancholic ballads to his lost wife and child. The stage is littered in fine performances, with dramatic stand outs by McGovern and Lambe, juxtaposed against Anita Reeves' surreal comic shifts supported to the full by a show stopping portyral of Tobias by Robert Bannon. The sharp acting compliments the soaring song which takes centre stage for much of the play (as it should) regularly returning to the twin central choral pieces – “Sweeney” and “Johanna” – which form the backbone of the musical, one the impassioned boom the other a gentle tonal ode.

The pacing of the show is swift and assured, drifting from surreal encounter to dreamlike vision; Cartmell follows the protagonists through the minimalist plot – shooting ballads and shrill notes throughout, and keeps the momentum going for the entirety of the performance to the audience' evident satisfaction.

In many ways the lack of any significant story line works towards the power of the show with the action virtually permanently on stage and the tunes highlighted as the centre piece. But even with this musical heavy display the characters continue to form through the plays structure, fulfilling their slight story threads, and exploring the emotional package each are designated with from the outset. It culminates in a revelatory show with the climactic conclusion, not very surprising, but dramatically performed and with sufficient punch nonetheless. The Gate has produced a thoroughly energising mixture of Broadway resonance and its own brand of characterised flair, which is both beautifully designed and acted.

Sweeney Todd is a joyous production superbly rich on a number of levels.