Sex, Death and Breaking Bad. A review of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse


Maybe Breaking Bad isn’t such a modern tale after all. Sweeney Todd has a similar story arc: a talented man wrongly denied his full potential by an uncaring society seethes with resentment. He accidentally meets an amoral criminal character who encourages him to become more ambitious in his crimes. After he is forced to commit his first murder he finds the subsequent crimes easier to execute. His crimes also turn him on sexually.

This is a long performance, two and a half hours no less and it is a musical of two halves.

The first half is paced a fraction too slow and during the interval I contemplated the second half with some trepidation—it was uncomfortably warm in the theatre— but I need not have worried, the second half flew by in a spell-binding flash.

The production values for this show are impressively high: clever set designs (with some Health and Safety issues!), dramatic lighting, complex choreography and quality musicianship – I only heard one bum note during the whole show.

All the cast members were excellent except for Niamh Perry who played Johanna and was merely good. It is unfortunate that the weakest member of the cast takes on such a pivotal role; her voice just isn’t on a par with the rest of them.

Sweeney Todd however, played by David Birrell, more than makes up for this dip in quality with his terrific voice and utterly convincing performance.

I particularly liked Sebastien Torkia who played Pirelli but he has the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G) so when he formed part of the chorus again later in the performance he kept interfering with my suspension of disbelief.

I confess that I’m not a regular theatre-goer so certain aspects of the structure of the play confused me and I found myself asking questions like “why do the slaughtered victims have bloody bandages on their throats when they rejoin the chorus” and “why is one of the chorus present at this intimate scene?”

After the show I asked James Brining, the artistic director, what the bandages were all about. He told me it was a detail, Brechtian in execution, not important. Ah, but James, to me it is important. I thought I had missed some profound symbolism.

The second half is nothing short of sensational. Much darker in tone than the first half it brilliantly builds to its hellish climax—a demented Sweeney Todd sat in his barbers chair, caught in the high-intensity spotlight.

Judging by the wild cheering for the first time the chair and trap door swallowed their first victim and the rapturous applause at the end, the audience loved the show.

I loved the second half too.

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