REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

If you asked me to describe NI Opera's production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in three words, I would choose: imagination, ambition, character.

That's character, not characters, for little or nothing in the human minds (if you can call them that) on the main stage at Belfast's Lyric Theatre exhibits three-dimensional thinking. And yet, it this very lack of thought beyond the archetypal which gives Sondheim and Wheeler's brilliant work extra heft, especially in the hands of a creative director such as Walter Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe is certainly not afraid of a challenge. Your mileage may vary on the overall quality of his productions of The Threepenny Opera and Rigoletto, but the general effect is undeniably memorable, if not sublime at times. Who, for example, can forget Threepenny's alarmingly steep stairs or colourful costumes, the latter of which were certainly replicated in Sutcliffe's take on Giuseppe Verdi last autumn?

For Sweeney, Sutcliffe and designer Dorota Karolczak have stripped things back and gone for something rather black, white and red all over. The wooden wall at the back of the set, identical to the walls of the Lyric Theatre's main stage itself, is spattered in red graffiti, a kind of self-referential nod to the woodenness of characters soon to be doused in blood, have blood on their hands, both or neither. Every single one of the fourteen cast members, from leads to ensemble, has their face painted white – every costume, indeed, ever colour on stage, reeks of damp desaturation or rust.

Dampness and darkness infest the life of the wrongly imprisoned Sweeney Todd (Steven Page), once known as Benjamin Barker. Returning to London as a broken idealist following the loss of his wife and daughter, he begins work as a barber above the pie shop run by Mrs Nellie Lovett (Julie Mullins, once of Neighbours fame).

If Todd is teetering on the edge of the cynical scale, Lovett has fallen right off it – making them the perfect match, or mismatch, for a series of escapades featuring chopped off heads and disgusting meat pastries which will unleash their anger and vengeance on just about everyone they can find.

The opportunity for invention is rampant, and Sutcliffe and his cast get straight to it right from the overture. While the solos and duets come across as stronger than the ensemble numbers, at least vocally, one has to admire the ideas dreamed up by the production team. Especially enjoyable are "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" and "God, That's Good", the former featuring a hilarious Matthew Cavan as the "Italian" conman who takes on Mr Todd in a shaving contest, the latter enabling the cast to enter the crowd and feed them some of Mrs Lovett's finest delicacies. (Take it from me, though, there is no real cannibalism here.)

Sadness also seeps in from the most unlikely of places. When one isn't feeling grim at the authoritarian Judge Turpin (Mark O'Regan, solid) and Beadle (Richard Croxford, ditto), they lament at the plight of Elaine Hearty's beggar woman, Jessica Hackett's Johanna and especially Jack Wolfe's Tobias. Along with John Porter's Anthony, he is the last hope for outright idealism - his performance of "Not While I'm Around" brings a heartbreaking look to Julie Mullins' face that can't be ignored. She is too damaged to be the mother figure he desires her to be - and Mullins' conveyance of this plays its part in making her arguably the best Mrs Lovett I've seen to date.

Like a friend and a foe at once, NI Opera’s Sweeney holds up a mirror to aspects of contemporary culture and modern society which simultaneously enthral and terrify us – and in doing so, is equally fulfilling and discomforting.

Simon Fallaha

Sweeney Todd runs at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre until Saturday February 23. For more information, visit or

Recent Theatre Reviews