Sweeney Todd

Reinterpreting a classic musical isn’t easy but Steve Lee finds out why a new production of Sweeney Todd has been given a makeover which neatly fits our times

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“It’s not that I get nervous, maybe a little keyed-up, but mostly I feel relieved when things go all right. And they did.”

Any first night of any production is an anxious time, but especially so for James Brining. Speaking the day after his new show, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, officially opened at West Yorkshire Playhouse, the relief in his voice is palpable. The musical also marks his debut as the venue’s recently installed artistic director.

“I’ve been in Scotland for 16 years, at Dundee Rep, which I loved,” he explains, brimming with enthusiasm, “but it’s great to be back in my native Leeds – it’s big and diverse and working here is very exciting.”

Audiences for 45-year-old Brining’s take on the Stephen Sondheim musical have been equally excited, the show also garnering excellent reviews. Commenting on Sweeney Todd’s enduring appeal, the director is quick to explain it’s far more than a darkly humorous blood-fest.

“The headline is a shock horror serial killer story – and that is scary and gory and very good at getting people nervous and right on the edge of their seats – but it’s got other themes as well, more political ones,” he says. “It’s not just about a man who is a monster, it’s about a man who becomes a monster and how the world is, and always has been, with people exploiting their power over the powerless.”

The major shift for those familiar with the demon barber’s tale, either from numerous silver-screen outings or previous theatre productions, is Brining’s decision to transplant the entire, blood-splattered fable from its traditional Victorian home to a rather grotty, spit and sawdust East End café, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. After admitting the change hasn’t been universally welcomed, he explains the reasoning behind this radical overhaul.

“As artists we should look at things and reinterpret them, not just blindly reproduce what’s gone before. The new setting brings the story much closer to us and to fit with the seventies feel we’ve created a real ‘winter of discontent’ atmosphere and added the famous Tory party ‘there’s no such thing as society’ thing. Of course, that’s all got so much resonance right now.”

Not content with the difficulties inherent in updating such a traditional musical (the actual Sweeney Todd story began in 1846 as a weekly thriller in the ground-breaking ‘penny dreadful’ magazines), shifting the production from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to Manchester’s Royal Exchange brings with it another set of hurdles.

In fact, during the Leeds run, daytime rehearsals were scheduled for the totally different ‘in-the-round’ performance space offered by Sweeney Todd’s next home across the Pennines. With typical enthusiasm, Brining describes the challenge as “exciting”.

“I’m not entirely sure about all the changes we require for Manchester… yet!” he laughs, adding, “the DNA of the show will be the same, it’ll just be in a different form. It’s a great prospect to be able to tell the story again but with a different atmosphere in a different environment.”

This collaboration between the two theatres is also, it’s hoped, the first of many with Brining keen to develop productions that can (relatively) easily switch between the sites. He describes the cities as, “both great and both really different but with a strong artistic connection”.

And, you wonder, how would Brining describe the thrill of such a dramatic tale to those perhaps unfamiliar with the stage, people raised on cinema and television’s blackest of satirical comedies? What precisely are they missing out on?

“The timeless thing about the theatre is that power you get from being in the room with the people who are presenting the story,” he enthuses. “It’s so much more visceral than on the screen: when you see the blood spurting out of someone’s neck then it really is in 3D – not cinema 3D but real 3D.”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1 Nov to 30 Nov, Royal Exchange, Manchester

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Sweeney Todd

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