Review: Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Theatre

Steven Page and Julie Mullins in Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Theatre
Steven Page and Julie Mullins in Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Theatre

GIVEN its savage critique of a divided society, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was a great choice for director Walter Sutcliffe's first production for Opera NI at the packed Lyric Theatre.

We totally get a society so unhappy it's tearing itself apart - or as Sweeney Todd sings, "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it".

It's London, of course, 19th century, Dickensian without the twinkle. The morals, although not worth what a pig could spit as the savage lyric continues, are ambiguous.

The barber of Fleet Street may deploy his razor as a small silver personalised grim reaper but we sympathise or at least understand why Mr Todd, with the deadly surname, has lost everything: wife, daughter, reputation and has returned from prison in Australia to exact revenge.

This is the grandest of grand guignols, with some dark near-pantomime moments as when one of Mr Todd's victims, whom we saw despatched from the upper level of the wooden, coffin like set by Dorota Karolczak, fall to ground with a thwack. Mrs Lovett gamely drags off her latest meat delivery.

The use of plastic on victims and body parts is inspired and gruesome.

The principals, Steven Page as Todd with Patrick Stewart diction and a fine baritone and Julie Mullins as Mrs Lovett are superb. Mullins has a touch of the mid-career Millicent Martin, effortlessly combining Cockney charm with wickedness.

As the story morphs into a strange account of two successful, capitalist yet cannibalistic pie makers, there are memorable scenes.

Lovett's sentimental song By the Sea is an un-ironic view of a dream life with Todd at the seaside.

Yet the nightmare undercurrents of their situation bring it all crashing down. Jack Wolfe's Tobias, worryingly good in scenes with his "mum" the pie maker, causes the naturally bloody denouement.

Stephen Sondheim's score defines eclectic with nods to the American songbook, Weill, bits of medieval harmony and the rest.

There are musical leitmotivs as revealing as Wagner's on a good day, with the touching music for Todd's rediscovered wife Lucy, aka the Beggar Woman (memorable Elaine Hearty), returning to haunt us.

Maybe the panels on the set didn't slide perfectly, maybe the lighting was ho hum, yet the thrust of Sweeney Todd's story gripped us. For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru, as the demon barber has it.