Reportedly, some theatregoers who saw Sweeney Todd in Chichester prior to its London transfer asked for refunds as they thought they hadn’t seen Michael Ball. They had, but not the Ball they were expecting.
This version of Michael Ball is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the cheery, loveable, dimpled presenter and the chuckling, corpsing, dragged up star of Hairspray. Instead, when Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting first illuminates Ball as Sweeney Todd, we meet a still, brooding, snarling, giant of a psychotic man who would sit comfortably alongside other iconic figures of horror like Hannibal Lecter or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface. Well, as comfortably as you would sit in that company.
Ball’s mere presence is heart-stopping. He seems to have grown two-foot since last we saw him in the West End. Maybe it is just that he is so close to Imelda Staunton for most of the performance, the diminutive dame-to-be providing the humour to offset his dark, monstrous presence.
They are, it is fair to say, an ideal double act. She plays the Eric Morcambe to his Ernie Wise, but with more cannibalism and severed arteries than the British comedians ever managed. Without ever playing for laughs, Staunton finds all the funny in the role of Mrs Lovett, the pie-maker with an infatuation for a certain barber and a special way with human remains. She delivers all the gags with the timing of a comedy great, while Ball holds his white, ghoulish face in a stony snarl.
There is, of course, more to the production than Ball and Staunton, but I could talk about their performances for months without getting bored.
Peter Polycarpou and John Bowe are thoroughly unlikeable – in a good way – as Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin, and Lucy May Barker sings like a songbird, appropriately enough, as the lost daughter Johanna.
Director Jonathan Kent and Designer Anthony Ward have together created a dark, workhouse world in which to frame Sondheim’s famous musical. It is a dingy place, all metal and shadows, where a gothic organ draws you into the blood-soaked tale and a steam whistle punctuates the sentences of the barber shop’s clientele.
It is the perfect place to set Ball and Staunton free to do their barbaric best, and they do it bloody well. If anyone hasn’t yet booked tickets, let me use the words of Ball’s “Here’s Johnny” moment, the most memorable image from a wholly memorable show: “Sweeney’s waiting…”