HOW could anyone feel sympathy for Sweeney Todd, the psychotic 18th Century barber who provided human pie fillings for the neighbouring butcher straight from his shaving chair?

With a flick of his cut-throat razor and a pull on a lever, unsuspecting customers were taken to their pastry-encrusted coffins courtesy of the trap door under the chair. One could say it was the cutting edge in production line technology.

The barbaric barber - who operated from London's East End - became synonymous with the sort of sickening stomach-turning stories reserved for the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Fred West.

But wait, there is another side to the barber with the deadly chair. The barber was in fact the victim of a crooked judge who decided he wanted Sweeney's wife for himself.

"Sweeney was sent to Australia as a criminal by the judge who got him convicted of false charges," said Barrie Hunter, who plays the cut-throat barber in the musical thriller Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

"I don't condone what he did, but I can understand why he wanted revenge."

"Sweeney originally set up his shop to kill the judge but decided to practise 'on less honourable throats' in the meantime.

"And the demand for the pies grew so he decided to help the pie- maker by supplying the meat."

To add to the authenticity of the role, the 33-year-old Scottish actor - who says he will be losing most of his accent for the part - has been getting to grips with a cut-throat razor. After taking lessons from a professional barber, the Scotsman set about practising on balloons.

"Obviously its not so good when I burst them which I tended to do, but the razor will be blunt with tape on it so there shouldn't be any real blood," he said.

"I'm getting used to using the razor without losing a finger, so it will look as though I'm giving a real shave during the performance.

"Learning to play the barber has been great fun, although the character is quite a challenge.

"And although it is a dark play there are elements of comedy in the show."

Tickets to the play, which runs at Hereford's Courtyard Theatre from Tuesday, September 12, to Saturday, September 23, are available at the box office on 01432 359252.