Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

~ The Observer by Kate Kellaway- 23/03/12 ~

It's hard to know what to advise: go to Sweeney Todd on a full or an empty stomach. Either way, you may want to avoid pies, especially those sold in Fleet Street, once you have seen Jonathan Kent's dark, bilious, brilliant production of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical (inspired by a Victorian penny dreadful). It's horrifically enjoyable – not to be missed under any circumstances.

It's set in a dark, smoggy, feral London (designer Anthony Ward) with virtuoso lighting by Mark Henderson, who sends a persecuting white beam through the peasouper to pick on Sweeney Todd "the demon barber", while in a yellow haze his estranged daughter, Johanna, basks and innocent punters greedily tuck into human flesh.

What Michael Ball brings to Sweeney, aside from his tremendous voice, is a monumental, depressive stillness. He seems paralysed by his past. He comes to life only in the moments where he sends his clientele to their deaths with his silver knife. Sweeney's customers wear huge white bibs that become their shrouds. And he has acquired a chic – and all the more creepy for that – scarlet leather chair, from which victims are ejected to the bakehouse below. There's a scintillating reprise of "Johanna", which Sweeney sings with almost absent-minded softness while "polishing off" one body after another. It's hilarious in its macabre, over-the-top way. It is the tense, incongruous juxtapositions and unpredictability of Sondheim's score that make the evening so powerful.

Imelda Staunton's performance as Sweeney's accomplice, Mrs Lovett, comes close to genius. She is a villain yet keeps her character real: a shrew in a pinny. Her Mrs Lovett adores Sweeney but is frightened enough to humour him, miming his murderous tastes with a flirtatious cut-throat gesture of her own. She has a hyperactive gaiety, especially on the subject of bad pies and in the outstanding duet (it could have been written by a cannibalistic Cole Porter) in which each profession is assessed as pie material, from poet to fop to rear admiral "with or without his privates".

Lucy May Barker's unusual Johanna has an edgy voice while Luke Brady's gorgeous Anthony is, vocally, golden syrup. Judge Turpin is well played by John Bowe as a pompous self-flagellator, and Peter Polycarpou's Beadle Bamford has menacing impudence, tickling the ivories in the Todds' front room. I will wait to digest this sensational show – then I'm going back for a second helping.

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