The Exchange really is an odd little theatre. Set inside the old cotton exchange building, the theatre itself is a self-contained, transparent box of modernity set in the round. Yet this proved the perfect setting for James Brining’s production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which transports the narrative from Victorian London to a Thatcherite mental asylum complete with stark, grimy set design.
Sweeney Todd is an incredibly psychological piece of theatre, something this setting only enhances. Here every character suffers from psychosis: David Birrell’s deranged and obsessed Sweeney; Gillian Bevan’s hilariously crazed Mrs Lovett; Barbara Drennan’s bedraggled and pathetic Beggar Woman whose matted white hair sprouts grimly from her balding head; Don Gallagher’s self-flagellating Judge Turpin struggling to contain his paedophilic desires; and Ben Stott’s tragic Tobias descending from innocence to insane murderer. Even Niamh Perry’s traumatised Joanna pulls a gun on her captor.
The psychotic tone of the piece surely reflects the grotesque horror and twisted humour at play, only emphasized by the intense sexuality on display. If Turpin’s Mea Culpa wasn’t deliciously disturbing enough, Little Priest sees Todd and Lovett becoming increasingly aroused as they delight in the prospect of their morbid business arrangement, the song acting as foreplay to both the murderous plot and their sexual relationship. As such, Brining’s production takes Sweeney to the darkest depths of the human mind.
Initially, the asylum feel is established during pre-show: a man stares blankly at a television screen, a woman shuffles slowly around the stage, another rocks back and forth on the floor and, in a subtle link to Joanna, a man creates origami birds accompanied by The Carpenters' Close To You. Yet disappointingly this notion is used only to enhance the psychotic themes rather than as a narrative framework and therefore feels underused.
The Exchange theatre certainly brings its own set of constraints, but there is something thrillingly eerie about watching the bloody bodies float across the stage rather than through a trapdoor. Yet whilst the reduced orchestration loses none of its impact, musical director George Dyer struggles to keep control of both the players and the singers. His frantic conducting is particularly distracting on the screens dotted around the theatre, which some of the singers appear to ignore.
The worst offender here is Birrell whose use of rubato is a little indulgent (and clearly frustrating for Dyer!). That said, his booming vocals and incessant staring are suitably frightening – in his Epiphany especially. Elsewhere, the singing is equally as characterful and with excellent diction from both the ensemble and the leads. Bevan plays Lovett with a little more subtlety than usual, though her comic timing is exceptional. Michael Peavoy’s Anthony is appropriately more horny youth than romantic lover, with a beautiful tenor voice. However, Perry’s Joanna (as is so often the case) has a nasal, shrill upper register – I long for the day I can hear Green Finch and Linnet Bird sung by a sweet soprano rather than a smurf.
Brining’s thoroughly engaging production may not be a perfect machine, but the dark psychological feel is well suited to Sondheim’s musical thriller. Moreover, this production can stand tall next to last year’s London production, proving you don’t have to be in the West End to see an exceptional musical.
Watch: Sweeney Todd runs until the end of November.