Review: Sweeney Todd, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd
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IT has been such a long time coming that the build up of pressure has reached a magnitude of epic proportions. James Brining has responded by bringing us a show of equally epic proportions.

He has been the “new man in charge” for over a year now at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – the moniker still applies because it has taken us until now, despite the fact that he has been in post since before last summer, to see the work Brining himself will bring to the stage as director. The artistic director has always been clear his first show would never be just about that show, but serve as a marker, an indicator of what we can expect during his reign.

I have good news.

Over the past year, we have discovered that Brining is one heck of a politician, but he has also spent the last year learning how the Quarry Theatre works. He has got to grips with it like few others have over the past decade. By accepting the vast, unwieldy Quarry stage and instead of battling against it, working with it, he has brought us a production that understands the space better than any production since David Copperfield in 2005. Our patience has been rewarded with an epic, almost operatic, intelligent and visceral production of Sweeney Todd.

An odd-looking and brilliant cast has been assembled to tell the story of Stephen Sondheim’s take on the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Set in a not entirely specified time, the production opens looking like a play within a play, set inside the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We are, it transpires, in Bedlam, the mental asylum in which tragic Johanna will be caged. Her father, Sweeney, has recently returned from Botany Bay, fleeing a life sentence to find his family and take revenge on the judge who ruined his life. Brining has done some exceptional work on the ensemble, creating a mass of intertwining stories and David Birrell as Todd is the disturbing and brilliant rock upon which this production is built.

The darkness Brining explores here is pitch black. A paedophilic, incestuous judge self-flagellates in penance for taking part in a gang rape – and Brining does not turn the audience’s gaze away. Which is a brave move and tells us, if nothing else, that we are in for a thrilling ride while this “new man” is in charge.

To Oct 26.