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Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

~ The Times by Dominic Maxwell - 21/03/12 ~


Let’s start at the end, just like Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeously grisly musical does. After almost three hours of being seduced and scared by thwarted love, warped morality and vengeful hairdressing, a Monday-night audience rose to its feet in delight. Quite right.

Jonathan Kent’s revival was a huge hit when it opened in Chichester last autumn with a cast of 30 led by Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It deserves a big audience here too. From the moment that an industrial whistle blows and the ensemble sings an operatic chorus from high up on Anthony Ward’s metal set, the mood is dark and entrancing. Kent has moved the story from the 1840s to the 1950s, yet the characters remain confined in a charcoal London illuminated by streaks of yellow light. By the time that Ball enters as Sweeney — the escaped convict who has come home to kill the judge who wrongly imprisoned him, raped his wife and adopted his daughter — we’re already halfway to Hell.

Yet this is a darkly funny evening in which a perfectly assembled story — adapted in 1979 by Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) from a play by Christopher Bond — is propelled by a score that turns the tropes of the Great American Musical to its own murky ends.

Kent handles the Grand Guignol with panache. But the real horror comes from the palpable progress towards damnation as our vengeful hero loses his moral bearings amid slit throats and human pies.

Ball is terrific. Unrecognisable with his beard and side-parted hair, he sings with the chilling purpose of a man desperate to turn himself into an angel of death. At the start, he sings the word “naive” with a sense of derision that suggests that Sweeney will never again permit himself to be fallible. He sings it again at the end with the grim irony of a man who got it all wrong.

And Staunton? Startlingly good. She finds something surprising but true in every line as Mrs Lovett, the pie-shop owner, from the grimly amused fascination with which she greets Sweeney’s first corpse to the wilfully blinkered romanticism of By the Sea, in which she sings of domestic bliss for her and Sweeney. You won’t see a richer performance this year.

There is excellent support too, from John Bowe as Judge Turpin, Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, Luke Brady as the sailor who loves her and James McConville as our antiheroes’ scrawny surrogate son, Tobias. But what really registers is how perfectly Kent controls the tone as we flip between the romantic and the discordant, the horrific and the comical, sometimes within a line. It’s an evening of glorious shades of grey; an absolute bleedin’ triumph.

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