I have a slight confession, I know most people regard Sweeney Todd as Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece and I do love it, but I would place it behind Company, Into the Woods and Follies in my appreciation of the Sondheim canon. That said, we had been totally blown away by this production in Chichester last year, where row C side stalls had cost £15 and were bookable in advance, some may say I’m tight, I say careful. As I am verging on the ancient, I had previously witnessed Michael Ball tackle serious roles as a youngster (both him and me) in Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Passion, before he became “Mr Musical Theatre” of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hairspray and Radio 2 fame. I also had fond, but hazy memories of Imelda Staunton’s turn as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods over twenty years ago and she had completely stolen the show in A Delicate Balance at the Almeida last year. Neither of them had disappointed at Chichester, with Ball unrecognisable as Sweeney Todd, the bloodthirsty barber hell-bent on revenge, and Staunton malevolently comic as Nellie Lovett, the opportunistic pie-maker with an unrequited devotion to Sweeney. This transfer was well deserved, especially considering the lacklustre response to Sweeney’s short-lived West End debut in 1980, which bagged the Olivier for Best Musical, but not the audiences.
As luck would have it, some old friends that we hadn’t seen in donkey’s years tweeted that were also going, so we met up in the Adelphi’s Jessie Matthews bar as soon as it opened and, fuelled by several vodka & tonics, reminisced about the good old days (the 1980’s), with me constantly breathing in and berating myself for not yet starting the post-Christmas diet (I’ll start on Tuesday once the Easter eggs have been demolished).
Entering the auditorium, the ensemble are already on stage, in character and mooching about the ominously grim set, rising up into the rafters with the back walls of the theatre visible through a semi-circular metal grid of walkways. The action has been bought forward from Victorian London to the 1930’s post and pre-war depression and this suits the mood of the piece perfectly, as Michael Ball’s Sweeney, deported to Australia on a trumped up charge by a judge that wanted to get his hands on both his wife and daughter, returns to wreak his own form of justice.
However, behind every mad, bad man there is an even madder, badder woman and the tension of this truly great production, which has unbelievably got even better since its’ Chichester incarnation, lies between Ball’s brooding brute and Staunton’s lovelorn schemer, neither of whom let anyone or anything stand in their way, with Mrs Lovett egging Sweeney on to even greater depravities in the hysterical act one finale, A Little Priest. As the body count rises and her cannibalistic pies become a roaring success, this reaches its’ zenith, or nadir depending on which way you look at it, once she persuades him that the orphan they have taken in has uncovered their secret and should also be dispatched, immediately following one of Sondheim’s most touching paeans to compassion, Not While I’m Around.
While the two leads are sensational, and Staunton’s attempts to woo a disinterested Ball are both hilarious and pitiful, the two young actors playing Sweeney’s daughter Joanna, Lucy May Barker, and her suitor Anthony, Luke Brady, who I had found just too drippy to be convincing in Chichester, are now superb and I was totally involved in their plight, rather than just wishing Ball & Staunton would return to centre stage. Both are gorgeous with beautiful voices and I reckon we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the West End.
As Sweeney discovers the fate of his wife, the full extent of Mrs Lovett’s deception is exposed and in a terrifying climax just desserts are served.
A bloody brilliant night out, career defining for both Ball and Staunton and one of Sondheim’s most complex moving scores with smart witty lyrics and a book that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. This is only a short run, as we have the delights of the Whitney Houston jukebox musical The Bodyguard to look forward to at the Adelphi in the autumn, so if you want to see how great musical theatre can really be, make sure you see this, even at £95 you won’t be disappointed.
Booking until 22 September 2012, bloody brilliant - Sweeney Todd