An Attention-Grabbing Sweeney Todd

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sondheim, Sweeney Todd: Michael Ball (Sweeney Todd),  Imelda Staunton (Mrs Lovett) and company in the Chichester Festival Theatre production, Jonathan Kent (director), Nicolas Skilbeck (musical director), Adelphi Theatre, London 19.3.12 (JPr)

‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod
did Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.
He kept a shop in London town.
Of fancy clients and good renown
and what if none of their souls were saved
they went to their maker impeccably shaved.
By Sweeney, by Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.‘

Long before Jack the Ripper, there was the legend of ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’, the murdering barber who dispatched his customers with a flick of the razor and then had his lover serve up the remains in a tasty meat pie. Many people encountering the tale take it for just that – a legend. To get to the musical as we now have it, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and playwright Hugh Wheeler adapted an earlier work by Christopher Bond, who had sourced an even earlier melodrama by George Dibdin-Pitt. This had its foundation in a contemporary account of Todd’s arrest, trial and execution. Bond has claimed that while Fleet Street was the home of many unstable and unsavoury characters down the years, ‘no one has ever succeeded in finding a shred of evidence as to the existence of a demon barber thereabouts’, but apparently there was a mad barber who really did skilfully use a razor and a trapdoor to rob and kill his customers with most ending up as filling for meat pies. That is almost another story entirely because what Sondheim’s musical gives us is a fictionalised account of that Sweeney Todd.

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball Photo Credit: Johann Persson

Now can I get a moan out of the way straight away because this above is how I basically began my review of a 2007 Royal Festival Hall concert of this musical starring Bryn Terfel. This is the least ‘historical’ information that I would expect in a printed programme but that offered at the Adelphi Theatre gives load of biographical information about Sondheim and the artists involved in the performance but absolutely nothing about Sweeney Todd and his ‘story’ – which is very disappointing. Debate continues to rage as to whether this is an oratorio-opera or a fully-fledged musical. The lyrics are often quite intricate and the scoring is quite Psycho-like and filmic at times. Nicholas Skilbeck and his small orchestra do incredible justice to Sondheim’s musically complex score and together they highlight the composer’s interesting use of Leitmotifs and different vocal styles for the differing characters. I repeat again what I mentioned in an earlier review that those with a well-tuned musical ear for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical influences will recognise a snatch of melody from the character Anthony’s ‘Johanna’ in ‘All I ask of you’ from Phantom of the Opera.

Sweeney Todd inhabits the operatic worlds of Lulu, Wozzeck and Peter Grimes and  for me it could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these masterpieces were it not a flawed work due to an apparent musical convention of a shortened Act II. Having dwelt at length to establish character and motivation in Act I, all comes to a bloody conclusion with such ridiculous haste that it is difficult to keep up with who is doing what to whom! (This is not unique to Sweeney Todd though, and it seems the idea with musicals that the audience who have refreshed themselves during the interval do not want to be detained too long afterwards before heading home.)

Accentuating the positive – and despite what I have written so far there were load of positives in an attention-grabbing evening. I must first praise Jonathan Kent’s staging for bringing clarity to a complex plot. It arrives at the Adelphi Theatre bringing with it glowing reviews from its Chichester Festival Theatre run of performances late last year. Along with choreographer Denni Sayers, Kent found ways to move characters onto, off, around and down from the stage so that all the action proceeded with a seamless forward momentum. We saw only a hint of Sweeney Todd’s ‘tonsorial parlour’ or Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and it seemed here and elsewhere only a semi-staging but it never spoilt anything. Anthony Ward’s galleried set with gaping windows, evokes the seething activity of East End, working-class London but, along with his costumes did not seem mid-Victorian but set in the 1930s or 40s – though without any information in the programme this left me a little puzzled.

Before reviewing the performance I would suggest nobody should go for the quality of the singing because it was not – apart from a few performers – of a high standard. It was great musical theatre but too many of the wonderfully accomplished actors had a vocal range of about four notes and that was it. Sadly Lucy May Barker as Johanna was one of those, as was John Bowe, the self-flagellating Judge and – somewhat unfortunately – Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett. However, she made up for lack of singing ability by providing a chilling characterisation of evil ordinariness, though even she seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the hectic stage business at the end of Act II. But Imelda Staunton is a consummate actress and Mrs Lovett is a part she seemed born to play … but perhaps not sing. Nevertheless she was still outstanding in ‘A Little Priest’ where she tries to trump Todd, her accomplice, in rhyme as well as potential victim and triumphantly comes up with ‘locksmith’.

Robert Burt had some good notes and considerable comic gifts as Pirelli. Gillian Kirkpatrick made much of the small role of the Beggar Woman, and the vastly experienced – and a true musical star – Peter Polycarpou was a suitable officious, jobsworth Beadle. As the lovelorn Anthony, Luke Brady sang winningly but the performer who really caught my eye was James McConville‘s very convincing interpretation of the gormless Tobias whose ‘Not while I’m around’ was one of only a few musical highlights during the evening.

Most of the praise for this 2011 Chichester Festival Theatre production has gone to Imelda Staunton and especially her Sweeney Todd, Michael Ball, who generally in the past has been more famous for his twinkling, dimpled, charm (truth-be-told there is still too much of that in this performance) than any black-hearted villainy. He clearly is not obvious casting as the razor-wielding title character but he channels some of Johnny Depp’s interpretation from Tim Burton’s film version and gives us an ordinary guy who you cannot imagine getting up to the things he does in private. His finest role-defining moment was during the most intense and thrilling scene in Jonathan Kent’s staging when as the set trundles forward to the centre-front of the stage and Sweeney Todd evolves from angry vengeance-seeker to blood-thirsty serial killer. For Sweeney’s ‘Epiphany’ (‘No I had him! His throat was there beneath my hand’) Michael Ball’s voice malignantly cries out ‘We all deserve to die’ and part of me – in a strange way – began to support him in his psychotic murderous lust. At this point he was the near-perfect ‘Everyman’, railing at the world for the misfortunes it has brought him.

Despite some reservations, if you are interested in Grand Guignol musical theatre at its near-best then do not miss this revival of Sondheim’s magnificent Sweeney Todd.

Jim Pritchard

For further details of Sweeney Todd at London’s Adelphi Theatre visit