Thursday, 5 April 2012

Theatre review: Sweeney Todd

Sometimes you can feel a lot better about yourself by spending some time with the very worst specimens of humanity. But enough about Vanessa, who's a big Stephen Sondheim fan and so got first dibs on my spare ticket for Sweeney Todd, now at the Adelphi in Jonathan Kent's production, originally seen in Chichester. Anthony Ward's multi-level set of metal staircases and curving walkways is an industrial Dante's Inferno in which Michael Ball can take centre stage as the vengeful barber, Benjamin Barker, who was transported to Australia because the corrupt Judge Turpin (John Bowe) wanted a shot at his wife. Changing his name to Sweeney Todd, Barker returns to his old Fleet Street premises above a pie shop, and plots bloody revenge on Turpin and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Peter Polycarpou.) Meanwhile he tries to get back the daughter the judge raised, and is now trying to force into marriage.

Ball has said he instigated this production himself as he didn't think anyone else would see him as the demon barber, due to his past roles in much lighter fare. Vocally, of course, Ball is up to Sondheim's demands (Vanessa whispered a "wow" after one song.) But with the weight he's put on in recent years, dark eye makeup and a greasy fringe, he's also physically convincing as he strides towards his victims, presenting a plausible threat. He is more than matched by his leading lady, not surprising as it's Imelda Staunton who dons Mrs Lovett's apron. If Ball brings the blackness, Staunton brings the comedy, making the amoral piemaker almost loveable with her unsubtle flirtations that go over Todd's head. There's a great, very funny conclusion to the first act as the two start to put together a plan: Todd has some dead bodies to dispose of, Lovett pies with no meat in them, and their two problems could solve each other.

The supporting cast can never hope to steal the limelight from the top-billed duo but mostly made a good stab at it; Polycarpou and Bowe sleazy as Sweeney's nemeses, Robert Burt has a fun cameo as doomed rival barber Pirelli, and Luke Brady is appealing as Anthony, suitor to Sweeney's daughter Johanna. (Wondering where I'd seen Brady before, I shuddered to see from his bio that it was the woefully misnamed The Fantasticks.) I wasn't crazy about the singing voices of Lucy Mae Barker as Johanna and James McConville as Tobias, although it may just be the high registers they were required to sing in that weren't to my taste, rather than their execution of them. The ensemble loom over the action from the walkways, an eager mob keen to catch every salacious detail.

Our £25 Upper Circle seats were quite restricted view, a little over 1/3 of the stage was obstructed, and I think the main loss from our perspective was in little comic details of Staunton's performance - the pie shop was located in the section of stage obscured by the curve of the circle. But what we could see was very good, the trademark murder scenes well staged - for the first couple of deaths it looked as if the production was going to be a bit shy about the gore but after a while the blood starts spurting to comically grisly effect. A show that mixes comedy, drama, horror and one of Sondheim's strongest scores, it gets a strong production here, and one which goes past at a rollicking pace.

Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and Christopher Bond is booking until the 22nd of September at the Adelphi Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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