Musical theatre is a big love of mine, especially the works of Stephen Sondheim, and I was thrilled to have a second opportunity to go and see his 1979 classic, ‘Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.
Having finished a widely acclaimed run at the heartily wonderful Chichester Festival Theatre in November, the show transferred, with much the same cast, to the Adelphi, and opened on the 10th of this month to a flurry of 4 and 5 star reviews.
This production follows the traditional version of the Musical, with original arrangement and staging, bar the somewhat updated setting from mid 1800’s to what I suspect was the 1940’s, an amendment which irked me not one bit, I think it made for a refreshing stance, and certainly distanced itself from the odious Burton film version from a few years back. If you’re a fan of Sweeney, then this production will feel like a favourite slipper, blood-splattered and bursting at the seams with familiarity, not to say however that there’s anything wrong with knowing just what you’re gonna get!
For me Sweeney Todd is all about Mrs Lovett, she’s got everything you want in a leading lady, and Imelda Stauton is a shining example of how she should be. Hopeful, desperate, savvy and common as muck are all a given, but it was the hint that perhaps somewhere she has good intentions that made Staunton one of the best. If you really want to get into the nitty gritty, I’d place her somewhere in between Angela Lansbury and Patti Lupone, above Sheila Hancock, and Christine Baranski. (Helena Bonham-Carter doesn’t feature on my scale). The warmth she brought to the stage was noted by every member of the audience, edging forward on seats and brightening of eyes as she came into a scene proved this, and was testament to her presence and enrapture.
Having only ever thought of Michael Ball in comedic, or jovial roles I wasn’t entirely convinced by this casting, but pleasantly surprised was I to see his tension and antipathy suited both him and the production, he dominated the stage and cast, and was truly believable as a the psychopathic Sweeney.
The rest of the cast were adequate, with no standout performances, I was unsure if this was in submission to Ball and Staunton’s stage dominance, or if perhaps they just weren’t all that outstanding, but the harmonies were spot on, and the plot carried well, so I suppose I mustn’t complain, and truthfully there is little to complain about.
I remember the fist time I saw Sweeney I was 15 years old, and didn’t really know much about Sondheim, or even musical theatre for that matter, the staging and arrangement at the New Wolsey theatre in Ipswich were almost identical to what I saw at the Adelphi this evening, but in that performance many years ago, from the first bar to the last word I was gripped to the story and the music, and I felt immersed. I was immersed this evening too, but perhaps not until the last third of the first act, not to say it wasn’t good for that first hour, but I wasn’t hooked, I wasn’t tense with anticipation, and I didn’t believe it. Perhaps this could be blamed on my surfeited nature as i’ve aged, or perhaps if could be accounted for by a certain amount of over confidence that comes with a string of A+ reviews in many of the major dailies, or perhaps it just took this particular cast that long to bind, and gel and to make me not want it to end, which ultimately they did.
Sweeney Todd is the type of show that would be difficult to make awful, as the songs and book are so exceptional. I’m sure I would enjoy any proffering you’d care to show me, but actually what I saw this evening went beyond that, they did an excellent job, and I was thoroughly entertained for the entirety. Staunton is the clear star of the show, and it would be worth seeing just to watch her as she plays, but do watch everything else, I guarantee you’ll not regret it.