Sweeney Todd ***

If one were to choose a single word to sum up Dundee Rep’s production of Sweeney Todd, it would be ambitious.  Considered by many to be one of the most difficult scripts to produce, its nearly three-hour running time is almost completely sung, contains a plethora a theatrical styles and has a plot filled with such themes as social justice, love, revenge and cannibalism.

15 years after being exiled on a trumped up charge, Benjamin Barker returns to London for answers.  His previous neighbour, the meat pie saleswoman Mrs. Lovett, tells him that his wife has since poisoned herself and that his beloved child is now in the care of the same man who framed him.  Barker takes the alias of Sweeney Todd and returns to his trade as a barber, intent solely on revenge.  However, when the bodies start to pile up, Lovett comes up with a gruesome way of disposing the remains.

The most notable aspect of this production is the work of director James Brining.  With its original staging and interpretation, Brining’s concept is direction at its best and most innovative.  He does not echo either Hal Prince’s highly influential original production or Tim Burton’s recent film version.  He does, however, create a production that is completely breathtaking, filling the stage with brilliant flourishes that are astonishing to watch, from the set made of large shipping cargo containers to the intriguing decision to move the action from the Victorian era and into a non-descript point in the mid-20th Century.

Sadly, not all is great.  While Brining’s direction is stunning, the performances are, at best, inconsistent.  David Birrell makes for an exceptional Todd, mixing anger and cunning with a wonderful voice, and Richard Conlon is great in the crucial supporting role of Pirelli.  The rest of the performances, however, are fine from an acting point of view but strangely weak in musicality.  Ann Louise Ross acts the role of Lovett well but has noticeable difficulty with the singing, making a few too many mistakes to not be noticed, and Robert Paterson’s Judge Turpin is too hammy to be taken seriously.  Other members of the ensemble fair better but still prove to be a mixed bag, especially when it comes to the music.

With such a brilliant piece of direction, it is a shame that the usually great Dundee acting ensemble aren’t vocally up to the hard challenge of Stephen Sondheim’s music.  The result is an enjoyable production that’s worth catching, even if it isn’t nearly as good as it should have been.

Until June 12th at Dundee Rep.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

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