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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sweeney Todd
Adelphi Theatre   Spring-Summer 2012  

Even Sondheim sceptics (and we all have our moments) must agree that Sweeney Todd is a major work of musical theatre large in ambition, operatic in scope and emotional depth, and yet melodic, accessible and even frequently very funny. And this production imported from Chichester is about as fine as you are ever likely to see. 

Stephen Sondheim and book-writer Hugh Wheeler came to the tale of the murderous barber and his meat-pie-making accomplice by way of Christopher Bond's dramatic version, from which they took the back story of Judge Turpin's villainy that makes Todd an avenger and thus potentially more tragic. 

This Sweeney is bitter at the start and mad by the end, but we watch the journey with an engrossing and satisfying mix of sympathy and horror, both supported and carried by Sondheim's music and lyrics. 

It is arguable that never in his fifty year career has Sondheim written a lovelier melody than 'Pretty Women', and the fact that it is a duet between would-be murderer and intended victim while the razor is being sharpened only gives it added piquancy. 

And any set of lyrics that includes  'And what if none of their souls were saved? They went to their maker impeccably shaved' and 'shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd' belongs in the absolute pantheon of musicals. 

Any production of this musical lives or dies with its stars, and director Jonathan Kent has found and guided two of the best to ever play these roles. 

I admit to never being much of a Michael Ball fan in his youth, finding him stiff and lightweight (no nasty letters please). But he loosened up considerably in Hairspray a couple of seasons back, and here he displays a real physical and emotional depth and gravity.

He doesn't quite eclipse the memory of Len Cariou's intensity on Broadway in 1979 (and who could?), but he gives what is surely the finest performance of his career and one unlikely to be challenged come awards time. 

And Imelda Staunton is, quite simply, the best Mrs. Lovett ever better even (dare I say it?) than Angela Lansbury. 

Mrs. Lovett is to a large extent the comic relief of the show almost all her songs are funny, and her simple amorality serves as a counterpoint to Todd's tragedy. But Lansbury and every other Mrs. Lovett I've seen played her as a cartoon, so that she sometimes seemed to come out of a different play. Imelda Staunton is the first to find and keep all the character's comedy but anchor her in the same emotional world as everyone else. 

From her opening admission that she sells 'The Worst Pies In London' she makes the comedy arise out of character, and 'By The Sea' is not just a pointless bit of fluff interrupting the action but the sweetly sad exposure of a very small person's very small dream. Later, when she realises that the boy Toby suspects them and will have to be dealt with, Staunton in a matter of seconds takes Mrs. Lovett through a range of emotions the character probably didn't realise she was capable of. 

So if she is not there at all the awards ceremonies taking her prize alongside Michael Ball, either there is no justice or something really incredible is coming along later this year. 

Jonathan Kent's production is grand and operatic without ever overpowering the human performers or the human story, and while a few of the secondary performers are imperfect either in elocution or characterisation, they don't hurt things. 

Sweeney Todd is the best work of the best American musical writer of our time, and this production is superb. Do you need more?

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Sweeney Todd - Adelphi Theatre 2012    


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