Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

~ Time Out by Sam Marlowe - 21/03/12 ~

“It's enough to make you come all over gooseflesh,” shivers Imelda Staunton's canny creative cook, Mrs Lovett, as she contemplates the grisly aftermath of one of the demon barber's deadly deeds. She's not wrong; Jonathan Kent's production of Stephen Sondheim's gore-soaked musical is dark and dazzling by turns, and utterly hair-raising.

It's not just that slitting people's throats and baking them in pies is a stomach-turning, if lucrative business; in this staging, social injustice and inhumanity emerge forcefully as commonplace obscenities. And, thanks to the brilliance of Sondheim's score and lyrics, and stunning performances from a cast led by Staunton and an almost unrecognisable Michael Ball as Sweeney, a macabre horror story becomes both diabolically funny and genuinely tragic.

Anthony Ward's designs present a multi-level industrial setting, seeping grimy deprivation, and pierced by shards of yellowy light that illuminate swirls of dirty fog. An ensemble of 1930s workers begin to entertain each other with the tale of Sweeney Todd while they toil, its gruesome thrills a panacea for lives of arduous, depression-era monotony. As Sondheim's music soars, there's a vocal explosion, as if this Victorian penny dreadful had ignited decades of rage and suffering.

Ball's grim, vengeful anti-hero is mesmeric, his eyes aglitter beneath his curtain of lank hair. His very stillness is menacing; his rich voice wrings every nuance of fury, madness and desolation from the score. When Mrs Lovett suggests her queasy get-rich-quick scheme, he flashes a toothy, lupine grin; it's a delicious moment of ghoulish comedy. And Staunton is nothing short of astonishing. She's hilariously adept with Sondheim's comic rhymes, and an earthy, gritty-voiced delight as she attempts coquetry with Ball. But she also conveys a devastating loneliness and longing that has you handing her your heart even as she's flinging body parts into the oven.

This is a production crammed with detail, vivid, nightmarish, and exhilarating. Bloody marvellous.

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