Saturday 11th March 2012, evening (first preview)
In a recent interview with the BBC, Stephen Sondheim described his operetta ‘Sweeney Todd’ as a ‘Love Letter to London’. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that in this country sending love letters like that is likely to get you a restraining order. Never one for sentimentality at the best of times, in Sweeney Todd, Sondheim is able to give his dark side full reign without losing his sense of humour. Comedies don’t get much blacker than this.
There has been some debate about the authenticity of Sweeney Todd as a real person, but commentators tend to agree that the story is based on an urban myth concerning the scarcity of pie-fillings. An innocent barber, transported to Australia on false charges by a judge who has designs on his wife, returns 15 years later, having escaped on a raft. He is told that his wife is dead, and his daughter is now the judge’s ward. Swearing to take revenge on the judge, he becomes consumed with hatred, and with pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett taking care of the bodies, there seems to be no end to his blood lust. Neither condemning or glorifying his central character, Sondheim presents the story as a cautionary tale against revenge.
Lighting and set designers Mark Henderson and Anthony Ward have created a evocation of London which is atmospheric without the usual representational clichés. With just a bare minimalistic floor (which is constantly attended to by washerwomen), a few grills, harsh monochromatic lighting, and iron staircases, we enter a world of portentous shadows. The effect of mysterious voices coming out of the gloom was unintentionally enhanced by our position towards the back of the upper circle, which made the upper parts of the gantries invisible. One of our favourite aspects of Sondheim’s music is the way he weaves multiple storylines in and out of the songs, moving the action forward seamlessly. In this production, the set serves the music well by constantly moving and adapting; characters are wheeled on and off with parts of the set, or lowered into the cellar by a slowly sinking grill, and in the reprise of ‘Johanna’, Sweeney sings about his long lost daughter whilst dispatching his customers through a trapdoor, with Mrs Lovett’s pie shop thriving below.
Michael Ball instigated this production himself, believing that nobody would ever cast him in such a role. He has probably been proved right by descriptions of him as ‘a revelation’, and some audience members reportedly not recognising him. We shouldn’t be surprised that Ball has given such a superb performance – he has already proved himself to be a musical theatre star with one of the most powerful and emotionally resonant voices of his generation, and it is gratifying to see him showing his dark side to such good effect. Ball resists the temptation to make Todd charmingly psychopathic; there is no trace of the formerly ‘beautiful’ man - he has sacrificed every part of himself to hatred.
By contrast, Mrs Lovett is probably the most emotionally complex character, and ultimately the most evil because she deceives Todd as part of a premeditated plan. At the same time her dreams are completely banal, making her a truly pathetic character. Imelda Staunton (hand-picked by Ball three years ago) brings out all of these aspects in an outstanding performance; she capitalises on every comedic opportunity (of which there are plenty), whilst never letting us lose sight of her deeply disturbed nature.
As the young lovers, Luke Brady and Lucy May Barker provide some of the most melodious moments, with Robert Burt giving an excellent cameo as Pirelli the fake Italian barber. Overall, this was a luxury cast which included musical theatre stalwart Peter Polycarpou in a relatively minor role. This is the standard we would expect in the West End, although sadly it is all too rare to find such a talented cast in one place.
One small oddity was the apparent updating of the action to the 1930s. Given that penal transportation ended in the 1860s, either Sweeney Todd was on that raft for a very long time, or his sentence was particularly draconian, which might account for his inability to let go. Having said that, the updating doesn’t seem to make the action less believable – which can’t say much for social progress.
It seems peculiarly ironic that such an outstanding production of a classic should be closing over the Olympics. Visitors will be missing out on a real treat.