Artisteer

From charming to chilling, Ball is superb as gory slasher Sweeney

~ Evening Standard by Henry Hitchings - 21/03/12 ~


If you think you know Michael Ball, think again. The popular lyric baritone is almost unrecognisable as the demon barber of Fleet Street, the pale-skinned psychopath whose murderous passions are the dark heart of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical.

It’s a chilling performance, sinister and saturnine. Ball is usually associated with warmth and a dimpled, chummy charm. Here, bearded and with an unfamiliar side parting, he is a revelation as the gory slasher whose desire to avenge a wrongful conviction turns into a crusade.

And he conveys with a lovely, sonorous strength the malign urges that define Sweeney as he turns customer service into a contact sport.

Alongside him as Mrs Lovett, Imelda Staunton is more than the perfect foil. At times, in fact, she threatens to steal the show. She is winningly funny and deeply irreverent as the cook whose inedible pies, previously a mix of grease and grit, are now furnished with new ingredients — thanks to Sweeney’s expertly wielded blade.

She gets some of Sondheim’s best lyrics and brings a busy comic energy to them. All the while she yearns

touchingly for the affections of the grimly plotting Sweeney. It’s a rich and layered interpretation.

In Jonathan Kent’s operatic production, the black comedy is matched by notes of tragedy. Sweeney is driven mad by his grievances and the sense that he is surrounded by hypocrites. As the action switches from scenes laden with doom to bright flashes of wit, it’s a fiery blend of melodrama, demonic brutality and inventive bawdiness.

This isn’t a flawless revival. Updating the setting from the Victorian era to what seems to be the Thirties is a misguided attempt at relevance. The action isn’t always as suspenseful as it needs to be. There’s too much emphasis on peripheral characters. Yet Sondheim’s varied, complex score is intelligently served; musical director Nicholas Skillbeck has achieved a nicely balanced sound.

Anthony Ward’s tall, brooding set transforms impressively from a shadowy cylinder framed by dark metal gates into an abattoir. And there’s some assured support, chiefly from Robert Burt as rival barber Pirelli and James McConville as Pirelli’s assistant.

This is an atmospheric Sweeney Todd, an unsettling musical thriller made razor-sharp by its two superb leads. When Ball and Staunton aren’t on stage we are impatient for their return.

 

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