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Sweeney Todd (*****)

Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is often proclaimed as his masterpiece, and a slew of successful productions and a Tim Burton feature film certainly attest to its lasting appeal. This new West End transfer of the Chichester Festival production, featuring stars Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, captures everything that makes this classic story tick and is a delight to behold. At the Adelphi Theatre.

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has its roots in the penny dreadfuls of the mid-1800s, and Stephen Sondheim’s take on the tale adds a plot of Jacobean scope, as well as his trademark use of counterpoint, rich harmony and clever lyrics. A barber, Benjamin Barker, returns to London after being sent into exile. The judge who sent him, Turpin, took advantage of Barker’s wife and adopted his daughter, and Barker swears bloody revenge, calling himself Sweeney Todd. Mrs Lovett, a pie-shop owner, falls for Todd’s dark charm, and offers him the room above her shop to open a barber’s (to attract the judge), but thwarted attempts at revenge drive Todd to ‘practice’ before approaching the judge, thus becoming a serial killer and finding a new meat for Mrs Lovett’s meat pies. However, plot revelations come thick and fast, and Todd ends up the victim of his own murderous revenge.

As you’d expect from a West End transfer, this is an excellent production – there’s very little to fault, and the result is thoroughly enjoyable. Michael Ball does an incredible job as Sweeney Todd in a part some would have thought beyond him – there’s still an element of his classic happy-go-lucky charm, but it is soon forgotten in a heartfelt and brooding performance. He sidesteps the cartoonish elements of the character to give us a living, breathing villain – and his always impressive singing stands him in good stead for some of the more explosive and complex pieces the play is littered with. Next to him, Imelda Staunton more than holds her own, finding the right balance between lusty, greedy villainy and pathos, and together they capture the entire theatre; their duets, especially the quirkily-directed “A Little Priest”, are a joy to experience.

In fact, there isn’t a song that doesn’t impress: Ball has his centre-stage moment with “Epiphany”, which is outstanding in terms of performance and staging, and Staunton has a whale of a time with “The Worst Pies in London” while making “By the Sea” just the right side of twee and tragic. Luke Brady’s Anthony and Lucy May Barker’s Johanna don’t have a huge amount to do, but his “Johanna” and their shared “Kiss Me” stand out as well. The ensemble also handles the complex and detailed harmonies with aplomb – it’s hard to think of a single song that wasn’t done well, and musical director Nicholas Skilbeck deserves a bow of his own.

The staging is also wonderfully done: a neglected, industrial London begins timelessly until the frantic madness of the beginning of the second act allows a bit of colour to pervade the space in Todd’s 1950s red barber chair and the neon sign outside Mrs Lovett’s pie shop – it may be a little anachronistic, but hats off to designer Anthony Ward for finding a visual language that captures the madness of the moment. The inventive use of a raised platform, constantly wheeling in and out and rotating, never distracts or seems too much; at Todd’s first opportunity for revenge, a very slow revolve just ramps up the tension and hides the quick entrance another character needs to make – a masterstroke. Although why Pirelli was dressed as the Go-Compare man I’ll never understand…

It’s easily the best production of this musical I’ve ever seen, and has thankfully banished any lingering cobwebs of Tim Burton’s cast of emaciated waifs. It’s rare that I’m this gushing about something, but I’m really finding it hard to find anything to criticise – Jonathan Kent has managed to find the counterpoint between the horror and humour, the beauty of Sondheim’s music and the cruelty of the story, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. My enduring memory of the evening is “Johanna (Reprise)” – Brady hanging from the balcony, lamenting his love, while Ball stalks his slowly revolving barber shop, dispatching customers with repeated precision while lamenting his daughter and a beggar woman sings screechily of the stench coming from the shop chimney… The perfect interplay of song and staging, tragedy and comedy, and three performers excelling at their craft.

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