The main dichotomy at play in Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd is horror versus humour. On the one hand, Sondheim was influenced by cinema and intended Sweeney to be almost a staged horror film. The mere proposition of a serial killer whose victims end up in meat pies is terrifying enough. On the other hand, the book is filled with black comedy and a lighthearted view of murder, making the intensely dramatic moments all the more poignant. Any production of Sweeney must balance these juxtaposed elements, luring the audience in with macabre humour before scaring the hell out of us.
Director Jonathan Kent's West End production, transfered from Chichester Festival Theatre, is a resounding success. Simply, this is an incredible piece of theatre, performed and produced to a sky high-level and an absolute must-see. God it's good.
Anthony Ward's 1930s set and costume design is spectacular. What initially impresses is the sense of scale and height, creating a claustraphobic urban London with a dark, metallic and industrial feel. With trapdoors and moving set, it works like a perfect machine. Once lit up by Mark Henderson's lighting, the visuals have a monochromatic quality, intricate shadows cast upon the stage in a web of noirish, moody atmosphere. This allows the red of Sweeney's fancy chair and the ruby droplets of blood to stand out.
What most impresses though are the performances. Michael Ball has utterly transformed into the titular pale-skinned odd-eyed barber, seemingly unrecognisable. His Sweeney is no pantomime villain, but a multifaceted and likeable antihero. Vocally, Ball is well suited to the role, with a characterful lower register and sweetly melodic upper range to match the varying demands of the score - the hushed and disturbing My Friends a particular highlight. At first he was quietly imposing but perhaps difficult to warm to, the RP accent a little too polite. However, his Epiphany was a revelation. As the raised set moved ominously towards the audience, his menacing and direct address was equally terrifying yet moving in the more romantic phrases. Little Priest meanwhile brought out a slightly camper side, a welcome change of tack and a rare sadistic smile. Ball has discovered the inner-humanity of the demon barber - a desperate and revengeful man who demands our empathy with unflinching resolve.
Imelda Staunton provides a hilarious turn as the thrifty Mrs Lovett. Though she struggled with the vocal demands, this was eclipsed tenfold by her incredible acting ability. Her rendition of Worst Pies In London instantly depicted the tone of the character with amusing quirks - it barely mattered that much of the music was spoken rather than sung. Her comic timing was impeccable, the extra lines of Little Priest providing additional examples of the character's witty remarks ("Privates cost extra"), further exemplified by numerous moments of ad-libbing. In this production, Staunton has succeeded Angela Lansbury in establishing the new standard for Mrs Lovett interpretation.
Anthony and Johanna are, by comparison, less interesting characters yet vocally more demanding. Luke Brady's lyrical tenor befitted Anthony's boyish charm and as Johanna, Lucy May Barker's soprano was suitably fluttering and birdlike, but too thin and shrill in the upper registers. John Bowe was positively disturbing as Judge Turpin, the often cut Mea Culpa here delivered in deliciously twisted fashion complete with self-flagellating. Though his nasal vocal grated slightly, James McConville's eerie final monologue as the deranged Tobias was psychotic. As a whole, the ensemble were excellent in both large groups and trios, with tight harmonies sung with razor sharpness as they emerged like scuttling rats from every crevace of the set. Nicholas Skilbeck's conducting did lag behind the singing at times, letting the heat out of the drama, but Sondheim's colourful and unsettling orchestration was well played by the orchestra.
Any minute flaws are merely the result of nitpicking and didn't mar the evening overall. Through the production's creative direction and triumphant performances, Kent has produced a frightening tale that marries horror with the heart. This is probably the best show in London - if your tickets are yet to be booked, may you feel the wrath of Sweeney's razor.
Submitted by guest blogger @ed_nights
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