Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

~ The Guardian by Michael Billington - 21/03/12 ~

Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett and Michael Ball as Sweeny Todd in Sweeney Todd, directed by Jonathan Kent at the Adelphi Theatre. Photograph: Michael Norrington

One test of a true work of art is that it is open to multiple possibilities. Since its premiere in 1979, I have seen Stephen Sondheim's dark masterpiece staged everywhere from New York's barn-like Uris Theatre to Covent Garden and the Cottesloe. But Jonathan Kent's production, which has now transferred from Chichester, and which leaves me grasping for superlatives, has given the piece a fresh look without destroying its essential fabric.

Since Sondheim's musical derives, via a Christopher Bond adaptation, from 19th-century melodrama, it has long been played as a Victorian period piece about a vengeful barber. But Kent and his designer, Anthony Ward, who sets the action inside what looks like a dilapidated factory, have shifted the perspective.

We now watch as a 20th-century chorus of the working poor retell the legendary fable of the demon barber. This has the dual advantage of retaining the story's Victorian echoes while reminding us that inequality and injustice remain a permanent scar on city life.

But Kent's chief achievement is to heighten the violent shifts of tone in Sondheim's masterly music and lyrics and in Hugh Wheeler's book. You see this from the start, when the chilling prologue, with its screams, factory whistles and echoes of the Dies Irae gives way to the comic spectacle of Mrs Lovett making her disgusting pies, filled with the vermin that Sweeney sees as characteristic of London. And this ability to constantly unsettle us recurs throughout the evening. Sweeney's terrifying Epiphany, when his determination to avenge his wife's death turns into a rage against the universe, is quickly followed by A Little Priest which jauntily sets the idea of consuming human flesh to a waltz tune in three-four time.

The performances are as bold and striking as the concept. Michael Ball's anti-hero starts with the huge advantage of responding to Sondheim lyrics, which tell us: "Inconspicious Sweeney was, Quick and quiet and clean 'e was."

Ball presents us with a skilled barber nursing a private grievance, who only gradually turns into a demonic serial killer. Instead of playing the end from the beginning, Ball charts every stage of Sweeney's descent. And I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that he reminded me periodically of that other solitary outsider, Britten's Peter Grimes.

Imelda Staunton, with equal command, plays Mrs Lovett as a pinafored loner whose residual moral sense is quickly overcome by her love of profit and lust for Sweeney.

I shall never forget the way that her cries of horror, at detecting the first of his victims in a trunk, gradually turn into semi-orgasmic moans of pleasure. Staunton not only gives the evening its comic counterpoint, but confirms her great gift for discovering the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

Luke Brady as a lyrical sailor, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney's imprisoned daughter, John Bowe as a self-flagellating judge, and Peter Polycarpou as his sadistic henchman are all first rate, and both Nicholas Skilbeck's musical direction and Paul Groothuis's sound design ensure every word is audible.

If one were mean, I suppose one could say, as Tynan did of Gypsy, that the show tapers off from perfection in the first act to mere brilliance in the second. But this is a superb achievement which proves that Sondheim's musical thriller has genuine social resonance.

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