'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' at the Lyric Theatre Belfast
The dark Gothic opera brought into the light, at a small but revolutionary Northern Irish establishment, continues to push the boundaries of contemporary theatre.
A night to remember... That sums up exactly the feeling you'd leave with. If you had been a member of the audience at a showing of Sweeney Todd at the Lyric theatre, Belfast. Perhaps the best known work of Stephen Sondheim's collective canon, the tale of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street tells the tale of a young man by the name of Benjamin Barker, wrongly imprisoned for 15 years in Australia on a false charge. He returns not as Barker but Todd, with murderous intent against the one individual who robbed him of his happy life with his wife and child. It's his bitter anger and resentment that threatens to consume all of London, as anyone who visits his barber shop, never returns in the same condition. A stellar cast of actors with incredible talent breathed new gruesome and gory life into this rendition of the dark gothic opera—with its superb mix of heart-breaking tragedy, dark humour, and the comically off-balance dynamic between the twisted and tortured Sweeney Todd (Steven Page), and optimistic, bright and breezy Mrs. Lovett (Julie Mullins who simply stole the show). Between these two devilish pair comes a tale of a city so divided, that both the rich and poor are literally devouring each other, with the help of Todd's Tonsorial parlour and Mrs. Lovett's delicious meat-filled pies. Ultimately, Todd's newfound blood lust springs from the desire to slit one coveted throat of the gentry who stole everything from him. Enter the savage Judge Turpin (Mark O' Regan) who previous to the events of the play has robbed Todd of his former life, wife and child. This dark interpretation of a tyrannical judge revered in high society, and abusive of his authoritative position, resonates with a modern audience even today. This portrayal of Turpin is only given light relief by his onstage counterpart Beadle Bamford (Richard Coxon); who despite his comical quest is as corrupt and twisted as the judge himself.
Some highlights of the spectacular show were Matthew Cavan's portrayal of the lavish leather-clad señor Pirelli; a larger than life character whose presence on stage overshadows all others, but ultimately hasn't the skill to match Todd in their entertaining shave-off on stage. Two other honourable mentions would be John Porter as Anthony Hope, whose voice was absolutely breath-taking; as it portrayed his own inner vulnerability and innocence, contrasting with the harsh and cruel streets of London. Also, Jack Wolfe as Tobias Ragg a young orphan who is continuously taken advantage of by his guardians until he is corrupted by the tale of Todd to seek revenge against him for murdering his mum/Lovett, at the bloody heightened climax of this terrible tragedy.
Under Northern Ireland Grand Opera director Walter Sutcliffe's guidance the vision of a darkly enriched Victorian melodrama enthralls the audience through captivating visuals, backgrounds, and a musical ensemble that truly draws the audience into the riveting tale of revenge. Outstanding pieces like the dark and playful "a little priest" and the beautifully touching Johanna performed with such vigor and ease—as to give testimony to the talent produced by those involved with the Northern Ireland Opera. The daring designer Dorota Karolcza re-invented the costume design for each character; giving insight into each individual through a mixture of steampunk and gothic attire on stage. The set design, which seems to be an intentional extension of the main auditorium, invites the audience to become participants in the grisly murders; turned cannibalistic enterprise of sordid business partners Lovett and Todd. There were also plenty of opportunities to get the audience actively involved too, as samples of Lovett's meat pies were passed around, and invites you to the stage for the closest shave you would ever have. Overall, the magical use of blood-drenched props, and ever-changing backgrounds, matched perfectly the macabre yet mysterious atmosphere that was palpable throughout. It keeps true to Stephen Sondheim's original vision too while introducing new elements that modernise the heart-rendering tale to be told afresh.
An epic tragedy that will continue to entertain audiences for generations to come.