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Stephen Sondheim’s gruesome musical Sweeney Todd opened at the Adelphi Theatre in March 2012. Having completed its highly successful run at the Chichester Festival in 2011, the classic tale of terror and revenge moved to the West End with its original cast that included the well-known names of Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball. Sweeney Todd opened at the Adelphi Theatre with previews from 10th March 2012, and closed on 22nd September 2012.
The musical score is written by Stephen Sondheim whose credits include seminal Broadway musicals such as Follies and A Little Night Music, and takes us down the murky back streets of London in the 18th century where ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’ sets out for revenge for his false imprisonment. Helped along the way by the local pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett, Hugh Wheeler’s book is terrifying, horrendous and wonderfully weaved with wit and humour.
This new production was directed by Jonathan Kent with designs by Anthony Ward.
The original cast from the Chichester Festival performance came with the show to the West End, with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in the leading roles. Michael Ball played Sweeney Todd himself, and he is no stranger to the stage having performed in Les Miserables, Hairspray, The Phantom of the Opera and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Imelda Staunton played the role of not-so-lovable Mrs Lovett, and is well-known for playing Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. She has also appeared in Vera Drake, Shakespeare in Love and Guys and Dolls.
Joining the principal cast were Luke Brady, John Bowe, Robert Burt, Peter Polycarpou, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Lucy May Barker, James McConville, and Adam Pearce, amongst others.
Stephen Sondheim jokes in the second part of his recent autobiography ‘Look, I Made a Hat’ that his shows only become fashionable once they have been revived. Recent London revivals of ‘Into the Woods’ (Regent’s Park), ‘A Little Night Music’ (Menier, Garrick & Broadway) and ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ (Menier, Wyndhams & Broadway) certainly help prove this theory, each earning rave critical reviews the second or third time around. Of all Sondheim’s work ‘Sweeney Todd’ is perhaps the most ‘mainstream’ thanks in part to a number of high profile revivals and the 2008 Tim Burton film. Jonathan Kent’s production which opens at the Adelphi Theatre for a limited run transfers from the Chichester Festival Theatre where it played to almost unanimous acclaim last year, proving the theory once again that a fresh take on Sondheim’s work is sometimes the best way to see it.
The production itself is conceived in a new light by both director and designer, relocating the action from the Victorian slums to a slightly more fashionable 1930s London. Some context is sadly lost in this transition to a more modern environment, and although the Parlour Songs are reinstated to Act II, the Penny Dreadful feel of the original has been lost. Sondheim saw the show as his ‘love letter’ to London and the city itself takes a back seat, giving the show a more universal feel. This is a darker Sweeney than we have seen before, with a strong ensemble working as a quasi chorus, reprising the main ‘Ballad’ against the impressive orchestrations. The show remains true to Hal Prince’s magnificent original production with a central revolve that doubles as Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and Sweeney’s Parlour, complete with functioning chair and gruesome surprises. The narrative framing is well used by Kent which helps keep the show feel current and fresh, despite being almost 35 years old.
Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton both give career defining performances as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett respectively, the former casting off type and rising beyond his housewives-matinee-idol icon. Staunton embodies the role with such confidence that she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. As one of the finest British interpreters of Sondheim’s work (she won an Oliver Award for The Baker’s Wife in ‘Into the Woods’) she owns every line, in demanding songs such as ‘By the Sea’ and ‘The Worst Pies in London’ she is so clear that audiences unfamiliar with the score can feel the humour and understand each perfectly crafted phrase. Her physicality is like a demonic Mrs Overalls, shuffling between customers as her pies begin to sell like hot cakes, controlling Sweeney resulting in his tragic conclusion.
Supporting performances are on the whole strong, with a fantastic villainous pairing of John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou as Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford matching the vocal heights of Robert Burt’s Pirelli. Exactly how comic Jason Manford will be able to fair in the role as he take over later in the run remains to be seen. James McConville as Tobias fails to drawn sympathy or demand any investment from the audience, and his voice appears weakest in the otherwise flawless ensemble. ‘Not While I’m Around’ becomes charmless and ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixer’ falls flat. Lucy May Barker proves to be a competent Joanna in an otherwise unforgiving role for any Soprano, doing the best she can with an otherwise two dimensional character. Luke Brady as romantic lead Anthony again misses the mark, failing to reach the bar that is continually raised throughout the performance.
The production is in no way definitive, but for those coming to the show for the first time it seems both accessible and current. Staunton rises as the true star of the production, which has thankfully been captured on a new cast recording. Worth the price of the ticket to hear ‘A Little Priest’ alone.
Share Your Opinion on Sweeney Todd….
Did you see Sweeney Todd at the Chichester Festival or at the Adelphi? What do you make of the casting? Do you think Michael Ball made a good Sweeney or do you prefer Johnny Depp in the role? Add your comments below!