CFT Away from Home
Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an adaptation by Christopher Bond
Originally directed by Harold Prince
Original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Originally produced on Broadway by Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson, Martin Richards
in association with Dean and Judy Manos
Director Jonathan Kent
With Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton
Starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, this 'wickedly funny' (Guardian) production of Stephen Sondheim's 'magnificent masterpiece' (Evening Standard) is set to thrill West End audiences from March 2012.
A five star, sell-out smash hit at Chichester Festival Theatre with standing ovations every night, audiences and critics agree - this 'mesmerising and enticing' (Financial Times) musical is unmissable.
Laced with dark humour, dazzling wit and an infectious score, it tells of Sweeney Todd's return to London after years of false imprisonment, and his savage quest for justice and retribution. Aided and abetted by pie-shop owner, Mrs Lovett, he sets out to avenge the wrongs done to him and his family many years before..
Directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Anthony Ward, Sweeney Todd comes to London for a strictly limited season. Don't miss Michael Ball giving 'the performance of his life' (Daily Mail) with the 'show stopping' (Mail on Sunday) Imelda Staunton in what promises to be the theatrical event of the year.
Age Recommendation 12 + Parental Guidance
'Ball is terrific...Staunton? Startlingly good...You won't see a richer performance this year...an absolute bleedin' triumph'
Let’s start at the end, just like Stephen Sondheims’ gorgeously grisly musical does. After almost three hours of being seduced and scared by thwarted love, warped morality and vengeful hairdressing, a Monday-night audience rose to its feet in delight. Quite right.
Jonathan Kent’s revival was a huge hit when it opened in Chichester last autumn with a cast of 30 led by Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It deserves a big audience here too. From the moment that an industrial whistle blows and the ensemble sings an operatic chorus from high up on Anthony Ward’s metal set, the mood is dark and entrancing. Kent has moved the story from the 1840s to the 1950s, yet the characters remain confined in a charcoal London illuminated by streaks of yellow light. By the time that Ball enters as Sweeney – the escaped convict who has come home to kill the judge who wrongly imprisoned him, raped his wife and adopted his daughter – we’re already halfway to Hell.
Yet this is a darkly funny evening in which a perfectly assembled story – adapted in 1979 by Sondheim (music and lyrics) and High Wheeler (book) from a play by Christopher Bond – is propelled by a score that turns the tropes of the Great American Musical to its own murky ends.
Kent handles the Grand Guignol with panache. But the real horror comes from the palpable progress towards damnation as our vengeful hero loses his moral bearings amid slit throats and human pies.
Ball is terrific. Unrecognisable with his bears and side-parted hair, he sings with the chilling purpose of a man desperate to turn himself into an angel of death. At the start he sings the word “naïve” with a sense of derision that suggests Sweeney will never again permit himself to be fallible. He sings it again at the end with the grim irony of a man who got it all wrong.
And Staunton? Startlingly good. She finds something surprising but true in every line as Mrs Lovett, the pie-shop owner, from the grimly amused fascination with which she greets Sweeney’s first corpse to the wilfully blinkered romanticism of By the Sea, in which she sings of domestic bliss for her and Sweeney. You won’t see a richer performance this year.
There is excellent support too, from John Bowe as Judge Turpin, Peter Polycarpou, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, Luke Brady as the sailor who loves her and James McConville as our antiheroes’ scrawny surrogate son, Tobias. But what really registers is how perfectly Kent controls the tone as we flip between the romantic and the discordant, the horrific and the comical, sometimes within a line. It’s an evening of glorious shades of grey; an absolute triumph.
One test of a true work of art is that it is open to multiple possibilities. Since its premiere in 1979, I have seen Stephen Sondheim's dark masterpiece staged everywhere from New York's barn-like Uris Theatre to Covent Garden and the Cottesloe. But Jonathan Kent's production, which has now transferred from Chichester, and which leaves me grasping for superlatives, has given the piece a fresh look without destroying its essential fabric.
Since Sondheim's musical derives, via a Christopher Bond adaptation, from 19th-century melodrama, it has long been played as a Victorian period piece about a vengeful barber. But Kent and his designer, Anthony Ward, who sets the action inside what looks like a dilapidated factory, have shifted the perspective.
We now watch as a 20th-century chorus of the working poor retell the legendary fable of the demon barber. This has the dual advantage of retaining the story's Victorian echoes while reminding us that inequality and injustice remain a permanent scar on city life.
But Kent's chief achievement is to heighten the violent shifts of tone in Sondheim's masterly music and lyrics and in Hugh Wheeler's book. You see this from the start, when the chilling prologue, with its screams, factory whistles and echoes of the Dies Irae gives way to the comic spectacle of Mrs Lovett making her disgusting pies, filled with the vermin that Sweeney sees as characteristic of London. And this ability to constantly unsettle us recurs throughout the evening. Sweeney's terrifying Epiphany, when his determination to avenge his wife's death turns into a rage against the universe, is quickly followed by A Little Priest which jauntily sets the idea of consuming human flesh to a waltz tune in three-four time.
The performances are as bold and striking as the concept. Michael Ball's anti-hero starts with the huge advantage of responding to Sondheim lyrics, which tell us: "Inconspicious Sweeney was, Quick and quiet and clean 'e was."
Ball presents us with a skilled barber nursing a private grievance, who only gradually turns into a demonic serial killer. Instead of playing the end from the beginning, Ball charts every stage of Sweeney's descent. And I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that he reminded me periodically of that other solitary outsider, Britten's Peter Grimes.
Imelda Staunton, with equal command, plays Mrs Lovett as a pinafored loner whose residual moral sense is quickly overcome by her love of profit and lust for Sweeney.
I shall never forget the way that her cries of horror, at detecting the first of his victims in a trunk, gradually turn into semi-orgasmic moans of pleasure. Staunton not only gives the evening its comic counterpoint, but confirms her great gift for discovering the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.
Luke Brady as a lyrical sailor, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney's imprisoned daughter, John Bowe as a self-flagellating judge, and Peter Polycarpou as his sadistic henchman are all first rate, and both Nicholas Skilbeck's musical direction and Paul Groothuis's sound design ensure every word is audible.
If one were mean, I suppose one could say, as Tynan did of Gypsy, that the show tapers off from perfection in the first act to mere brilliance in the second. But this is a superb achievement which proves that Sondheim's musical thriller has genuine social resonance.
Where there’s yuck there’s brass. That may be the calculation behind Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
In this transfer from Chichester it is staged and sung and acted with verve. Professionalism at every turn. A top band.
For all this showmanship, the nastiness overwhelms. Vindictive barber Todd and his accomplice Mrs Lovett turn innocent (and some not so innocent) victims into meat pies.
A boy finds himself eating a dead man’s hair and fingernails. Blood spurts from throats. There are clever rhymes about the greasiness of dead lawyers’ bodies.
I left the Adelphi impressed but sickened. Sweeney Todd is a dark night.
Imelda Staunton deploys all her comic talent as Mrs Lovett to try to alleviate the tale’s grisliness. It does not matter that her voice pinks and rattles like an Italian moped engine.
Every time her sparrow frame steps on stage, the pace quickens. This is no bad thing, for musical director Nicholas Skilbeck does not rush Sondheim’s schematic score.
Michael Ball’s Todd wears a whitened face in his first scene, along with a long lick of straight, black hair.
The psychotic Todd has returned to London from the penal colony of Australia.
He seeks his wife and daughter Johanna. Frustrated, he sets out on a brutal campaign against mankind, serving ‘a dark and vengeful god’. There is, he reasons, nothing unusual about cannibalism.
In the modern world do men not effectively consume other men all the time?
And so we get a musical about a mass murderer, set not in Victorian times but in a mish-mash of the 1920s and later.
The deadly barber’s shop chair, done up in red leather, whooshes corpses down to Mrs Lovett’s basement.
John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou do grand turns as a baddie judge and his beadle. Robert Burt, playing a rival barber, is a ringer for the moustachioed chap in the Go Compare adverts.
A subplot of Johanna (Lucy May Barker) and her wet boy-friend (Luke Brady) barely smoulders. Everything is subservient to the evil of Todd and his glinting razors.
Director Jonathan Kent delivers spectacle. The whole thing is done with artistic oompf.
But my neighbour, in her late 40s, repeatedly hid behind her hands and children will be given nightmares.
In my view, Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim’s best show and one of the greatest musicals of all time.
It is dark, nightmarish and thrilling, and packed with tremendous numbers, from the comic to the cruel (often simultaneously) and from the tender to the terrifying. Watching it, you have no doubt that this is masterpiece of nervous laughter and sudden jolting shocks.
Most of my colleagues raved about Jonathan Kent’s production when it opened in Chichester last year, but I had reservations that this welcome West End transfer doesn’t entirely allay.
It strikes me as downright perverse that this grisly musical melodrama, which Sondheim specifically set in 1849 and which creates a Dickensian atmosphere of 19th-century London, complete with a beadle and a hellish scene set in a Victorian lunatic asylum, should have been updated to the 1930s. And Kent’s production doesn’t always achieve the hurtling momentum required by a show inspired by horror films and their scores, which Sondheim has described as “a movie for the stage”.
But that is enough nitpicking. There is far more to commend than to criticise, and those lucky enough to be seeing Sweeney Todd for the first time will be blown away.
The great news is that Michael Ball, best known for cosy campery, is now tremendous in the title role. His fleshy, pallid face and lank dark forelock create an instant shiver, he has a splendidly brooding stage presence and the moment when he flips from a man with a legitimate grievance into a deranged psychopathic killer sends shivers racing down the spine.
It is also impossible to praise too highly Imelda Staunton’s performance, as Mrs Lovett, the slatternly proprietor of a down-at-heel pie-shop whose business takes off when she hits on the ingenious idea of serving up Todd’s victims in pastry and gravy. Her customers become inadvertent cannibals as she dispenses, in one of Sondheim’s greatest lyrics, “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”.
What’s wonderful about Staunton is that she seems so sweet, funny and cosy, and her tender love for Sweeney is genuinely touching. Yet she is actually the real villain of the piece. You gurgle with pleasure at her every good-humoured, wickedly funny entrance, until her smiling face turns hard and her eyes go dead as she realises she must sacrifice the confused young boy she has befriended if she is to safeguard both her profits and her hope of marrying the psycho with whom she is besotted.
Some of the supporting performances could do with more oomph, and Lucy May Baker seems particularly bland and vocally strained as the persecuted heroine. The band, however, is superb, while Anthony Ward’s design creates a vivid sense of urban deprivation and decay.
But this Sweeney Todd will chiefly be remembered for its stomach-churningly gory razor killings, with blood squirting over the shop, and the thrillingly perverse chemistry between Ball’s terrifying demon barber and Staunton’s deliciously chirpy pie-maker.
If you think you know Michael Ball, think again. The popular lyric baritone is almost unrecognisable as the demon barber of Fleet Street, the pale-skinned psychopath whose murderous passions are the dark heart of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical.
It’s a chilling performance, sinister and saturnine. Ball is usually associated with warmth and a dimpled, chummy charm. Here, bearded and with an unfamiliar side parting, he is a revelation as the gory slasher whose desire to avenge a wrongful conviction turns into a crusade.
And he conveys with a lovely, sonorous strength the malign urges that define Sweeney as he turns customer service into a contact sport.
Alongside him as Mrs Lovett, Imelda Staunton is more than the perfect foil. At times, in fact, she threatens to steal the show. She is winningly funny and deeply irreverent as the cook whose inedible pies, previously a mix of grease and grit, are now furnished with new ingredients — thanks to Sweeney’s expertly wielded blade.
She gets some of Sondheim’s best lyrics and brings a busy comic energy to them. All the while she yearns touchingly for the affections of the grimly plotting Sweeney. It’s a rich and layered interpretation.
In Jonathan Kent’s operatic production, the black comedy is matched by notes of tragedy.
Sweeney is driven mad by his grievances and the sense that he is surrounded by hypocrites. As the action switches from scenes laden with doom to bright flashes of wit, it’s a fiery blend of melodrama, demonic brutality and inventive bawdiness.
This isn’t a flawless revival. Updating the setting from the Victorian era to what seems to be the Thirties is a misguided attempt at relevance. The action isn’t always as suspenseful as it needs to be. There’s too much emphasis on peripheral characters. Yet Sondheim’s varied, complex score is intelligently served; musical director Nicholas Skillbeck has achieved a nicely balanced sound.
Anthony Ward’s tall, brooding set transforms impressively from a shadowy cylinder framed by dark metal gates into an abattoir. And there’s some assured support, chiefly from Robert Burt as rival barber Pirelli and James McConville as Pirelli’s assistant.
This is an atmospheric Sweeney Todd, an unsettling musical thriller made razor-sharp by its two superb leads. When Ball and Staunton aren’t on stage we are impatient for their return.
Tickets £20 - £95 (including booking fee)
Box Office 0844 811 0053