Libretto by Hugh Wheeler, based on the play by Christopher Bond
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Pros: Musicals as they should be; fantastic lead performances, great music and no overbearing set or special effects.
Cons: A couple of less engaging performances from the supporting cast.
Our Verdict: An excellent musical, even we were satisfied!
I think you probably know us well enough by now to have realised that musicals are not our ‘thing’. It’s not about being snobby (although Jesus Christ, Superstar
? Really?), it’s more about the fact that they are being ruined by their own commercial success. It’s all too much in the way of effects, and that distracts from the story lines and the performances (deliberately perhaps, a literal example of smoke and mirrors!). That being said, we do try to keep an open mind; we have reviewed one musical before this one (Matilda the Musical
), which achieved the coveted five star rating! So when I was offered the chance to see (yet another) Chichester Festival Theatre
transfer, starring Michael Ball as The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, opposite the legendary Imelda Staunton, I decided to give it a go. Blood, hairdressing, meat pies; what’s not to love about this charming little tale?!
Most people know the story of Sweeney Todd cutting people’s throats with a barber’s razor whilst Mrs Lovett turns them into pies, so no need to bore you with a plot summary. Needless to say, it is a delightfully sinister story, and Jonathan Kent’s Chichester production is exactly that: delightfully sinister. Delightful because his production brings out the comedic elements of the script (as it should), and sinister because despite these comical moments, the evil and twisted motivations of the characters are clearer than in any previous productions I have seen. And it all takes place against the backdrop of a superb set from Anthony Ward – it’s not overbearing, it’s dark, gloomy and eerie as it should be.
There is no clearer demonstration of this ‘delightfully sinister’ description than from Imelda Staunton’s exceptional portrayal of pie-maker Mrs Lovett, who is often forgotten about when it comes to the ‘evil’ stakes. Whilst Todd is motivated by passion and revenge having been wronged by Judge Turpin, Mrs Lovett is more twisted, scheming and opportunistic, traits which are often ignored by those tasked with portraying her in favour of laughs. Fortunately, Staunton’s performance is right on money. She delivers laughs and gasps in equal measure, and her sickening motivations are no longer hidden behind a comedic veil. The laughs still roll in thick and fast (her ‘Worst Pies in London’ song was hilarious for example!), however Staunton’s real strength in this production is to hit a note in between which strikes a perfect balance between humour and evil. It’s a truly wonderful performance, though I would expect nothing less.
Michael Ball is also impressive as the protagonist, and again he clearly demonstrates the character’s devolution from targeted revenge killer to frantic mass murderer. Naturally his singing is excellent too! Other strong performances come from Robert Burt as Pirelli and John Bowe as Judge Turpin. Bowe in particular shows us a clear example of a different kind of evil.
Sadly, Lucy May Barker as Johanna, and James McConville as Tobias didn’t elicit the right response from me. These are supposedly the innocent characters in the play; Johanna in particular is supposed to be an angelic soprano, whilst Tobias is meant to be a naïve young boy trapped in a nightmare. However, instead of finding them endearing, I found their performances rather irritating. A small problem, but a problem nonetheless.
So overall another hit from Chichester, and a second musical triumph as far as this blog is concerned – perhaps we’re coming round to musicals, but the more likely explanation is that we look for real substance to our shows. Substance involving meaty performances, interesting storylines and good music. Sweeney Todd has it all, and it proves that you don’t need to waste millions of pounds on a stupid piece of scenery which is only used once in a 3-hour long bore to make a stunning production.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!
Sweeney Todd runs at the Adelphi Theatre until 22nd September 2012.
Box Office: 0844 811 0053 or book online at http://sweeneytoddwestend.com/