Pippa Bregazzi reviews Sweeney Todd, at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2, 10 March 2012

Rating: 5/5

Imelda Staunton (centre, as Mrs Lovett) among the Sweeney Todd company

Dark Victorian streets; the iniquitous dens of London’s underclasses; a murderous barber-surgeon hell-bent on revenge… It’s not exactly material that lends itself to musical comedy, and yet there is something about Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd that keeps pulling audiences back year after year. Perhaps it is the thrill of the macabre, the incongruous gallows humour, its stylisation and artistry, or that spine-chilling title music. Whatever it is, this London revival of the 2011 Chichester Festival Theatre production certainly delivers; dark, funny, and thoroughly mesmerising, it is a production not to be missed.

The two leads bounce off each other marvellously, with Michael Ball’s Todd all hellfire and brooding vengeance, while Imelda Staunton provides the comedy as his inappropriately practical landlady, Mrs Lovett. Ball is perhaps not everybody’s immediate thought when it comes to this role, and admittedly I did find it difficult to separate the actor from the character, but he gives a credible attempt at sinister, and his ‘Epiphany’ scene is captivating: the set pieces creeping towards the audience as, razor held aloft, he proclaims to the rafters that ‘we all deserve to die’.

Staunton steals the show. Her comic timing is spot on, her back-and-forth dialogue with Ball turning from lascivious banter to a competition in the wickedly funny Act I finale where, making a rhyming game out of Todd’s victims, she triumphantly crows ‘locksmith’, outwitting him into silence. But she is not just playing it for laughs, and her portrayal of a woman for whom morality is simply unaffordable is both unappealing and pitiable in equal measures. While she is clearly less comfortable with the higher notes, occasionally veering towards screeching, she has a strong lower register and she covers it well by making it fit her character. Ball’s singing, as to be expected, is note-perfect.

Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

They may have the most stage time, but Staunton and Ball are not the sole reason for seeing this show. The other characters are competent, and while no match for the leads, they hold their own, particularly John Bowe as the splendidly disturbing Judge Turpin. The chorus are strong, with their recurring ‘Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ sending shivers down the spine as well as providing narrative exposition. While this is in part due to Sondheim’s creative genius, it could easily have fallen into hamminess. Thankfully, it does not, and the chorus really get their chance to shine in both the asylum scene and the Act II finale.

It could have been a dangerous venture, following so soon after the Tim Burton film, but that was a mere shadow of the stage show and Todd is here restored to its full glory, a dark and sumptuous musical that both repulses and fascinates us, even as it raises more serious points about class, and the state of the human condition. A tremendous production.

Sweeney Todd, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, is at the Adelphi on the Strand, and runs until September 22.


Pippa Bregazzi

Image credits –  Catherine Ashmore (upper photo) and Tristram Kenton (lower photo), courtesy of the Adelphi Theatre