Adelphi Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre is a rare production these days. Having received critical acclaim in Chichester in 2011, the producers brought it to the West End for 6 months only, and when its residence on The Strand ends this week, that’s it. The show’s over. No formulaic production here, complete with instantly recognisable logo or slogan, that can be replicated around the world, and re-cast every 12 months as necessary. Neither are there any gimmicks apart from a rather gruesome barber’s chair and pints of stage blood. This Sweeney is most definitely cast-specific, and it shows.
Jonathan Kent has set Sondheim’s work in an unspecified era with Anthony Ward’s design being darkly evocative, bleak and stark. This deliberate blurring of the time boundaries (The Judge and Beadle predate Robert Peel’s police force, yet Pirelli drives a petrol powered trike) adding to the production's sensation of disquiet and enhancing the slightly supernatural aspect of Todd’s persona. The feel of the production is almost as cold as steel itself. It is harsh, industrial, and gritty. A steam sirens blasts, heavy doors clang shut and even the massive set piece that bears Todd’s barber shop, is stored behind a noisy steel roller shutter door when not in use. The one item striking item of garish colour on the set is the neon sign ( again, a time-warping design feature ) promoting Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop. The neon is of course ghoulishly ironic, beckoning customers to enter and unwittingly feast on their fellow man.
Michael Ball plays the barber with calculating vengefulness. His smiles are always insincere, his purpose always focussed as he uses any means he can to avenge his wife’s supposed death, his daughter’s abduction and his false imprisonment. Rarely is a murderer so convincingly sympathetic and Ball explores the full depths and complexities of the troubled man as we follow his journey. Sondheim’s lyrics and melodies are not easy, nor is the show easy-listening. The words are fast and harsh, and the harmonics frequently in complex minor keys, yet 6 months into the show’s London residency, Ball remains both fresh and comfortable in the role, without in any way slipping into lazy over-confidence. His comic moments are few, often being a straight man to Mrs Lovett’s effusiveness, yet they shine. In A Little Priest, his understated irony is perfect, whilst his armchair sardonic attitude towards the clearly besotted Mrs Lovett, in a parlour scene leading up to By The Sea, has distinct echoes of Michael Robbins’ Arthur, from 1970s TV’s On The Buses.
Without question, Michael Ball is one of the country’s musical theatre stars. Since creating the role of Marius in Les Miserables, his performances have nearly all involved lyrics as well as prose. By contrast, Imelda Staunton who plays Mrs Lovett, herself one of the country’s top actresses, does not have such a popularly recognised reputation in musical theatre. Yet, when the Chichester casting was announced in 2011, the decision to pair Staunton with Ball, was deservedly greeted with universal acclaim. Lovett is a down trodden, poor, woman of the people, as well as being arguably the (second) most evil character in the show and Staunton plays her definitively. Her character is complex: cunning, compassionate, caring, comic but above all, lonely. Staunton’s performance portrays all these aspects and then some more and does so with a breathtaking clarity of speech and melody of voice. Maybe one day Sondheim will write the story of what happened to Mr Lovett. As and when he does Imelda Staunton should reprise her remarkable creation. Both Staunton and Ball are professionals who are at the pinnacle of their careers and whose ability to act through song cannot be surpassed. They quite simply provide a masterclass in musical theatre.
Adding a further comment with regard to Staunton, this reviewer witnessed her as a Hot Box Girl in Richard Eyre’s Guys and Dolls some 30 years ago and devotedly followed her progress within that show over time, until she was rewarded with the lead role of Miss Adelaide. It is interesting to note that with both Miss Adelaide, and now Mrs Lovett, Staunton has taken iconic women from two seminally New York and London inspired shows, both of whom, coincidentally, had been memorably and famously performed by Julia McKenzie, and given each her own unique and powerful interpretation.
The supporting cast are typically outstanding to a man. John Bowe is a nauseatingly perverted Judge, whose lust, first for Todd’s wife and then for the barber's young daughter is flesh-creeping. And it speaks volumes for the pedigree of this show, that an actor of the calibre of Peter Polycarpou was lured to take the modest role of Beadle Bamford. As the young lovers, Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady play their parts in the story with passion and conviction.
All these outstanding performances however are hung on the framework of creative excellence that is Sondheim's talent with words and music. A New Yorker, his eye for the pulse of a city is cleverly worked into his rhythm and words and coming from across the pond, his is a rare talent that can compose lyrics and dialogue that have an authentic London feel. His cockney writing has more to do with Lionel Bart's Oliver, than Disney's "Mockney" that the Sherman brothers foisted on Mary Poppins' Dick van Dyke.
It is both sad but also absolutely correct , that Sweeney Todd should bring the curtain down this weekend. The inspired brilliance of the pairing of Ball and Staunton is not likely to be replicated soon on a London stage, and it would be a travesty to deliberately re-cast this union with fresh actors. If you have not seen the show yet, you have five more days and seven more performances to catch it. Not to be missed!
Runs until September 22 2012