ALTHOUGH, or because, it is a tough challenge to stage, Sweeney Todd has become a staple favourite of local groups. There have been quite a few recent productions of Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical about the legendary demon barber of Fleet Street, but you could travel far and wide and not find a better production than Southend Operatic’s version, running at the Palace until the weekend.

Sweeney Todd wows audiences with its fast driving narrative, the extraordinary cast of characters who inhabit it, and above all, its stunning score. The songs veer from the gently lyrical (No One’s Going to Harm You), to the comical (The Worst Pies in London), to the sinister (City on Fire) , to the appalling (Eat Priest), all backed up with some of the most powerful dramatic underscoring ever written for the theatre. Ian Gilbert’s confident direction includes chorus work that brings the fetid underbelly of Victorian London into all-to-sharp-relief. It all adds up to an absolute winner for SODS.

If there is one single factor that truly sets this production apart, it is the mesmerising performance of Les Cannon as the title character. This is a performer who has been around for 27 years, and played many of the biggest roles in musical theatre, but he hits a career high as Sweeney, the gentle barber turned vengeful serial killer, who uses his barber’s chair to wreak execution on his victims. Normally associated with more comic roles, Les here manages to plum unsuspected depths of darkness to project a chill-factor that is more terrifying than anything in The Woman in Black.

Also tremendous is Ashley-Marie Stone, as the Mrs Lovett, the inventive small-time businesswoman who monetises Sweeney’s victims by turning them into meat pies. In her first lead role for SODS, Ashley-Marie is a revelation. So too is Paul Alton, lowering and malevolent as Sweeney’s prime target, the corrupt Judge Turpin. He delivers the yuckiest flagellation scene you are ever likely to witness with true musical aplomb. There’s great support from Scott Roche (a previous Southend Sweeney) as the Beadle, Jon Buxton as the fraudster Pirelli, and newcomer Oliver Mills as Tobias. Stunningly lit and staged, this is a production which carries a lingering impact, and is powerful enough to turn us all into vegetarians for life.