Joanne Savage enjoys a danse macabre in Newtownabbey
Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is an odd, jaunty musical – a freakish crescendo of revenge with easy throat slitting, desire and gentrified, pastry-laced cannibalism.
It’s easy to see why its Stygian score appealed to the gothic imagination of Tim Burton, whose 2007 film adaptation made much of its savage satire and the freewheeling grotesquerie that makes minced meat of Fleet Street’s hypocritical overlords.
The musical’s thematic preoccupations owe much to Seneca and the revenge tragedies of the Jacobean era, which married murderousness and comedy, culminating in gauche bloodbaths and terrible moments of anagnorisis.
Sweeney is much like Tourneur’s Vindice, who fixates for years on vengeance against the man who ruined his lady-love – pumped up with self-righteousness and a conflated, unswerving sense of moral authority. Sweeney wants the throat of Judge Turpin, the hypocritical cretin who ravaged his wife and had him incarcerated for over a decade.
Angry at his fate and the 'vermin' who roam the streets of London, he becomes a barber who uses his blades for a lot more than shaving. Sweeney is assisted in all these murderous exploits by a lot of shaving foam, a trapdoor and the resourceful Mrs Lovett with her foul cookbook.
Mrs Lovett makes pies from the minced flesh of the victims, and they go down a treat among the gourmands of Fleet Street. Busy with her rolling pin, she dreams that her adeptness with cadaver-meat might make Sweeney return her feelings of amorousness.
The Northern Irish premiere of this odd duck of a musical doesn’t disappoint. Director Andrea Montgomery strikes exactly the right note with Peter Corry as the gloomy, obsessive barber and Nuala McKeever as the jocular, manipulative, bosomy Mrs Lovett. Both give strong vocal performances, dealing gracefully with Sondheim’s rousing choruses and adding just the right amounts of knowing-glee and bloody-mindedness.
Their insistence on lightness of delivery at the most macabre moments, winking and laughing as they discuss the purity of priest-meat, the distinct oily taste of politician compared to lawyer, the rarer quality of bishop – makes things at once compellingly psychopathic and nauseatingly sinister.
The overweening sense is that this is a production alive to the contemporary resonance of Sweeney Todd’s worldview. Sondheim’s musical is a dark parable exposing the ruthlessness of a capitalist system of mass consumption and exploitation; there are only two kinds of people – those who are eaten and those who dine.
It takes a dark lens to human nature, a Randian optic, exposing each of us as self-seeking agents - out for our own gain at the expense of others and unabashedly motivated by selfish greed and vanity. The arch satire of characters eating the seasoned guts of others and asking for seconds is brilliantly symbolic of the brutality of a capitalist economy. The chorus act up this gory analogy, singing out 'yum, yum!' as they unwittingly chomp on a former friend or colleague.
The denouement has the high body count of a Jacobean drama, corpses splayed across the floor and the gruesome secrets of Mrs Lovett’s hellish oven laid bare. In lesser hands such action could descend into farce, especially as Sweeney gives his partner in crime the rounds of the kitchen in a hideous danse macabre. But here the strange note of gothic allegory is wonderfully preserved, the gloaming and gore off-set by Nuala McKeever’s wicked grin and the full blast of an excellent, spirited chorus.
You leave the theatre wondering about the plight of Sweeney Todd, the injustices he suffered and the dark, hungry god who overtakes his humanity. A production that revels in the idea of revenge best served up as a steaming, gritty, diabolical mince pie.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs at The Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey until February 13. For more information or to book tickets call 02890 340202 or visit www.theatreatthemill.com.