Sweeney Todd - Review

~ Michael Billington for the Guardian - 07/10/2011 ~

Productions of Sondheim's dark masterpiece tend to oscillate between a quasi-industrial vastness and a psychologically revealing intimacy. The great quality of Jonathan Kent's superb revival is that it has elements of both. Anthony Ward's design, with its circular gallery filled with gaping windows, evokes the seething activity of a dilapidated, working-class London. But, while providing a portrait of a society that is more early-20th century than mid-Victorian, there is an intense focus on individuals.

Michael Ball, more famous for his charm than his demonism, may not seem obvious casting as the revenge-seeking hero. But he and Kent have listened to the lyrics, which tell us from the start that "Inconspicuous Sweeney was/ Quick and quiet and clean 'e was." So Ball presents us with a potato-faced, dark-haired guy you could easily pass in a crowd and who only reveals his murderous fixation in private. We also see, in the show's most thrilling moment, Sweeney's transition from vengeance-seeker to serial killer. In Sweeney's Epiphany the set trucks forward and, Ball's voice rings out as his malignant gaze rakes the auditorium and he pronounces: "We all deserve to die."

As his pie-making accomplice Mrs Lovett, Imelda Staunton also mixes contrapuntal comic relief with a detailed portrait of a woman in whom lust and greed overcome morality. Looking aghast at Sweeney's first victim, Staunton allows her cries of horror to turn into gleeful acceptance and, when Sweeney hymns his death-dealing razors, her hands roam lasciviously over his forearms. Staunton and Ball together also turn the wickedly funny number, A Little Priest, into a competitive game in which each tries to outwit the other. My favourite moment comes when Staunton, challenging her partner to match her in rhyme as well as crime, triumphantly comes up with "locksmith."

Nicholas Skilbeck, as musical director, achieves an ideal balance between orchestral and vocal sound, and there is a host of fine supporting performances, not least from John Bowe as a self-flagellating judge and Peter Polycarpou as his officious beadle. The result is a memorable evening in which Sondheim's musical achieves, and frequently outdoes, the skin-prickling power of Jacobean revenge drama.


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