First Night Review: Sweeney Todd

~ Paul Callan for Daily Express - 09/10/2011 ~

Young reporters used to be warned that Fleet Street was home to a cut-throat profession. Jobs could be lost on a whim and one newspaper’s “local” was nick-named “The Stab in the Back”.

All this was doubtless partly inspired by the urban legend of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics brilliantly transformed the menacing story into an award-scooping 1979 musical. Sondheim himself called it his “black operetta” – an apt tile considering its dark humour and creepy drama.

The show tells of the return to 19th-century London of the revenge-inflamed Sweeney Todd.

He has been wrongly imprisoned in a penal colony and, aided by the evil pie-shop owner, Mrs Lovett, sets about slitting throats in his specially built barber’s chair and sliding them down below to be made into meat pies.

There can be no doubt that this is one of the best productions to come out of Chichester in recent years. Director Jonathan Kent is to be congratulated on giving us a memorable version of Sondheim’s masterpiece. The circular stage throbs with movement, high emotion and humour. The performance last night seemed so overwhelming the audience just leapt to their feet and cheered.

It was the triumphant pairing and performances of Michael Ball as the crazed Sweeney, and Imelda Staunton as the eccentric murderess Mrs Lovett. Together, they brought a new power to the show perfect for each other’s exceptional artistry.

Ball was immensely strong. He had to express, not merely brutality, but also tenderness at the loss of the woman he loved. These he did perfectly.

But it was Imelda who stole the evening. Her comic timing, sweetness of voice and ability to project humour into one of the stage’s darkest roles was remarkable. She’s blessed with a face that easily registers comic emotions – but can easily switch suddenly to horrified panic.

Her singing was delightful and could range from the cockily irreverent to tender passion.

In designer Anthony Wards set the barber‘s salon is elevated. It is here, in full view, that Todd’s victims meet their messy end on a scarlet barber’s chair.

One slash, a massive squirt of blood and they are off on their way to become filling for pies. A meaty show, indeed.

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