In too many of its retellings, the story of the demon barber of Fleet Street is a juvenile gore-fest that is all gothic thrill and little substance. Not so here. Stephen Sondheim’s majestic through-composed musical takes its cue from a stage adaptation by Christopher Bond that made the hero less of a melodramatic serial killer – although there are bodies aplenty – and more of a man on a mission.
The Sweeney Todd we see here in James Brining’s brilliant production has returned from 15 years in Australia with good reasons to enact revenge on the judge who raped his wife and adopted his daughter. Played – and gorgeously sung – by David Birrell, he has as much righteous justification for his killing spree as he has psychopathic tendencies. You don’t exactly approve of his barber’s chair murders, but you can see he has a legitimate grievance, and his tragic downfall is more to do with excess than motivation.
All this would count for little if the company were not up to the vocal and musical demands of Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece. Happily, Dundee Rep proves itself more than worthy, pulling out all the stops with a 16-strong cast, a ten-piece band led by musical director Hilary Brooks and a marvellous modern-day set by Colin Richmond that gives the piece a sense of gritty, inner-city decay, reminding us that economic disparity has a role to play in this dark human story. It’s a stunning achievement.
Dundee Rep, until Sat 12 Jun