Nick Bagnall’s pared-down production makes Stephen Sondheim’s majestic 1979 musical feel like it were made for this age: it is a story, after all, of people driven over the edge by societal injustice, poverty and abuse of power, who end up literally eating the rich.
Staged in the reconfigured Everyman Theatre, Bagnall’s production features just nine actors and a four-man band.
Liam Tobin plays Benjamin Barker, the barber unjustly transported to Australia by the villainous judge who raped his wife and then kept his daughter as a trophy. He returns to London thirsty for revenge and pairs up with the widowed Mrs Lovett (Kacey Ainsworth), a down-on-her-luck pie shop proprietor. They form a mutually beneficial union. He puts his razors to murderous use; she disposes of the bodies in her bake-house. Though his first kill is committed out of fear of being blackmailed, he soon develops a taste for it.
Tobin convinces as a man intent on vengeance who can barely contain his rage. He has the requisite physical presence but his vocals are underpowered at times. He speak-sings some parts, but excels at the more delicate phrasings. Ainsworth’s Mrs Lovett, clad in tracksuit bottoms, her blonde hair pulled into a pony-tail, is life-hardened yet resilient and lively; she’s a woman who glimpses an escape route from the grind of life and makes a grab for it. Neither have powerhouse voices but they give grounded, resolutely human performances.
The playing space is dominated by a large, rusted disc, designed by Michael Vale. It looks a bit like a great big drain cover. The cast manually rotate this, using long poles or sometimes just their hands, as lighting designer Mark Jonathan illuminates it from below, in arterial red or queasy green. While the cutting of throats is staged relatively cleanly, the gore takes the form of buckets of viscous Chianti-coloured gunk that get glopped and slopped into the pit below every time someone bites the dust.
Musical director Tarek Merchant captures the intricacies of Sondheim’s score, and the musicians are often dragged into the action to entertaining effect. The intimacy of the staging is one of its strengths, but it can also be exposing, sometimes to the show’s detriment. Despite Keziah Joseph’s efforts, Joanna is little more than a pretty victim. Paul Duckworth has one of the crispest voices, but is lacking in menace as the reptilian Judge Turpin. Dean Nolan, however, gives an athletic, scene-stealing turn as scam artist Pirelli.
Rough around the edges as it is, Bagnall’s production is a timely one, alert to the lengths people will go when they’re desperate and marginalised, the depths they’ll sink when they have nothing left to lose. It’s a fittingly bleak take on the material, its anger palpable, even though it never entirely transcending its limitations.