I went to Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi theatre on Friday 16th March. I was so excited because it was on my 'to see list' when it was at the Chichester Festival Theatre and besides the great reviews, I know that many great shows start there.
To top it off for me was the prospect of seeing Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, who I just knew (funny theatre feeling in my stomach) would be an absolutely perfect pairing. I was looking forward to seeing how Ball would change my perception of him as a jovial, larger than life, Edna Turnblad character.
Set in a dark and gloomy London, the story is one of a barber, wrongly transported to Australia, leaving his wife and daughter to the mercy of the dreadful Judge Turpin. On returning to his home, he finds the two people he loved have been taken from him, and along with Mrs Lovett who runs the pie shop underneath his barber shop, plots a disturbing and relentless revenge.
So I'll start by saying that I absolutely enjoyed the night. The opening sequence in the prelude alone can be called a highlight, and made my hair stand on edge within about a minute of the show's beginning, and that is a pretty rare feat for me! Musically, there is no doubt that this is one of Stephen Sondheim's most complex and and challenging pieces. The cast gradually took their places on stage before the show started, and drew you in immediately. Picture this: dirty, gritty, smoggy London. The audience anxiously chatting away, some unaware of the cast's presence. Cutting through the noise comes a piercing squeal of a boiler releasing stem, and the show begins. Already disturbed by the abrupt squeal Sondheim's beautiful yet unsettling use of discord in the score enhances the edginess of the piece perfectly.
Enter stage: Michael Ball. Deliciously and devilishly deranged. I admit I was apprehensive about seeing him play such a emotionally deep and disturbed character, but he completely blew me away as the eponymous Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He got the balance between vengeful victim and devoted father and husband perfectly. He was dark, really dark, but also very endearing which was so refreshing for this character, and his deadpan comic timing throughout brought a welcome release to sinister and depressive plot. His rendition of 'My Friends' is deeply moving, and draws you to the human nature that does still remain in his character.
Imelda Staunton: Well just WOW. Honestly this role was perfect for her. Mrs Lovett needs to cut through the darkness of the plot with her deluded love of Sweeney and hilariously blunt attitude. Imelda has got this down to a 't'. You cannot help but find yourself laughing at scenarios and suggestions you would never think to find funny in real life. Aside from her splendid entrance in 'The Worst Pies in London', her highlight has to be her comic brilliance in 'A Little Priest', the lyrics are some of Sondheim's best and the song is laugh out loud funny, and definitely one of the stand out songs of the show.
The supporting cast complemented the two 'stars' perfectly, and with such a talented company, it's no wonder that this revival has gained so many rave reviews. John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou are brilliantly sleazy in the roles of Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively. Luke Brady was handsome and wide-eyed as Anthony, and along with Lucy May Barker's innocent and naive Johanna offered a welcome touch of lightness to the heavy story of revenge. However, the best of the rest is without a doubt James McConville as Toby. With a beautiful voice and endearing nature, he without a doubt has the capacity to steal the show given half the chance. Perhaps had the leads been played by different people, he would have indeed done so. Charming, lovable, and definitely one, along with Barker, to look for in the future.
I've seen and own the Tim Burton film adaption, and thought it was fine, but after seeing the stage original I have to say the film now leaves me disappointed. The comedy is largely lost and you don't feel as much empathy towards the characters. There is too much focus on Johanna and Anthony's love story and the two leads are at times rather one dimensional in comparison to Ball and Staunton's matching.
Perhaps the one problem I have with the show is it's setting. Of course you can't go wrong with a darkly lit stage or smoke machines to create a sordid and claustrophobic London, and the use of the drum revolve on stage effectively adds level and allows for the juxtaposition of action between the barber shop above and cellar below. However, in this particular adaptation of the musical the setting is not Victorian London as you would imagine, but a 1930s/40s London. Electric shop lights and Pirelli's travelling van are at times a little distracting, however it doesn't take too much away from the fundamental story.
Overall, I'm giving this Jonathan Kent revival of this production four and a half stars out of five.
Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton are glorious in this adaptation and are strongly supported by the supporting cast. Musical Director Nicholas Skilbeck manages to tackle Sondheim's unsettling and complex score, bringing balance to the discord and touches of the sinister to the lighter, romantic songs. With a limited run until 22nd September it's definitely not one to be missed, and will no doubt sell out fairly quickly.