FIRST NIGHT REVIEW: It's hide behind your hands time

~ Daily Mail by Quentin Letts - 21/03/12 ~

Where there’s yuck there’s brass. That may be the calculation behind Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

In this transfer from Chichester it is staged and sung and acted with verve. Professionalism at every turn. A top band.

For all this showmanship, the nastiness overwhelms. Vindictive barber Todd and his accomplice Mrs Lovett turn innocent (and some not so innocent) victims into meat pies.

A boy finds himself eating a dead man’s hair and fingernails. Blood spurts from throats. There are clever rhymes about the greasiness of dead lawyers’ bodies.

I left the Adelphi impressed but sickened. Sweeney Todd is a dark night.

Imelda Staunton deploys all her comic talent as Mrs Lovett to try to alleviate the tale’s grisliness. It does not matter that her voice pinks and rattles like an Italian moped engine.

Every time her sparrow frame steps on stage, the pace quickens. This is no bad thing, for musical director Nicholas Skilbeck does not rush Sondheim’s schematic score.

Michael Ball’s Todd wears a whitened face in his first scene, along with a long lick of straight, black hair.

The psychotic Todd has returned to London from the penal colony of Australia.

He seeks his wife and daughter Johanna. Frustrated, he sets out on a brutal campaign against mankind, serving ‘a dark and vengeful god’. There is, he reasons, nothing unusual about cannibalism.

In the modern world do men not effectively consume other men all the time?

And so we get a musical about a mass murderer, set not in Victorian times but in a mish-mash of the 1920s and later.

The deadly barber’s shop chair, done up in red leather, whooshes corpses down to Mrs Lovett’s basement.

John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou do grand turns as a baddie judge and his beadle. Robert Burt, playing a rival barber, is a ringer for the moustachioed chap in the Go Compare adverts.

A subplot of Johanna (Lucy May Barker) and her wet boy-friend (Luke Brady) barely smoulders. Everything is subservient to the evil of Todd and his glinting razors.

Director Jonathan Kent delivers spectacle. The whole thing is done with artistic oompf.

But my neighbour, in her late 40s, repeatedly hid behind her hands and children will be given nightmares.

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