Theatre Review: Sweeney Todd

Date Posted: 22/03/2012

Does the new production of Sondheim’s classic, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, deserve all its screaming praise? Carrie Martindale went to find out.

The show summed up in one sentence… A deliciously dark drama, full of macabre melodies, show-stopping scenery and glorious gore.

Who should see it? Sondheim aficionados and fans of the original show or story will love it. Any stalwart Michael Ball groupies might be a little bit shocked though!  

 I’m going to cut to the chase with this review. If you’re looking for an all-singing, all-dancing, feel-good musical spectacular, then you’re in the wrong place. Think less musical, more opera. An operetta in fact, as my theatrical companion put it; and as a relative newcomer to the world of musicals, having seen less than ten in the last couple of years, Sweeney Todd was a revelation to me.

Next, let’s get the casting out of the way (I told you this was going to be cutthroat). “Boyish-faced, goody-goody Michael Ball playing the malevolent Mr Todd?” I hear you cry with scorn. Yes, and he’s quite literally bloody brilliant. I hear tell that with his slicked hair, beard, dark eye makeup and grimy appearance; even his own partner doesn’t recognise him.

In true Victorian melodrama, the show opens to a gloomy set, amidst a murky mist that Dickens would have described as a London particular. An industrial, multi-level set from Anthony Ward creates ghoulish shadows, all greys and browns, until that red chair takes centre stage.

As the company sings the incredibly catchy introductory number, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, Ball rises from the grave to Sondheim’s aggressive and climactic organ music, and audiences’ thoughts couldn’t be further from Love Changes Everything. And I’m still humming that first tune to myself now.

It’s a well-known tale. Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, returns to London after 15 years' transportation in Australia on trumped charges. When he finds out that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the judge who transported him, he vows revenge on the judge and later, the whole world. He teams up with pie-maker, Mrs Lovett, and opens a barbershop in which he slits the throats of customers and has them baked into pies.

Stephen Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with Hugh Wheeler in 1979, and the musical was notably made into a film by Tim Burton in 2007 starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The film wasn’t originally a great success, mainly due to the fact that the stars’ fans weren’t expecting a musical.

Ball plays a man who has become a demon due to his circumstances, and he’s incredibly believable and frightening, along with having a fabulously operatic singing voice. In My Friends, as he’s given a gift of a new set of razors from the adoring Mrs Lovett, he declares that "at last, my arm is complete again" in a rich baritone that makes you swoon. It’s just a shame that Ball’s vocal talents aren’t used more within the production, but the character of Todd doesn’t lead many songs.

There’s murder, blood, rape, violence, self-flagellation and madness in this show, but there’s also a great deal of humour, with the vast majority provided by the outstanding Imelda Staunton as Todd’s accomplice. An accomplished actress, her singing is very good, but it’s her ability to make us all hate her and yet fall in love with her that won my vote. She is hideous and hilarious, bumbling yet devious; and she has a marvellous ability to screw her face up into a myriad of expressions.

Superb support is provided by John Bowe’s lascivious self-flagellating Judge Turpin, and Peter Polycarpou’s nasty Beadle Bamford. The sickly sweet lovers (Luke Brady and Lucy May Barker) perform their underwritten parts with beautiful voices; but all the comedy and the darkness of this impressive show belongs to the leading duo. They’re razor-sharp.

When the production first opened in 1979, it received mixed reviews but still managed to win the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1980. And mixed is a little bit how I felt about this new production, as I stood clapping amongst a standing ovation. It wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. If nothing more, then be prepared to be surprised.

Sweeney Todd is currently booking at the Adelphi Theatre on The Strand until the 22nd September. Groups of six plus and ten plus can take advantage of discounted rates for performances from Monday to Thursday, plus Wednesday matinees. Senior groups of ten or more can also access reduced-priced tickets on Monday and Tuesday evenings, and Wednesday matinees.

Picture credit: Tristram Kenton


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