Mini Review from London–SWEENEY TODD

by Lynn on July 6, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Adelphi Theatre, London. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Designed by Anthony Ward. Sound by Paul Groothuis. Lighting by Mark Henderson. Starring: Michael Ball, Lucy May Barker, John Bowe, Luke Brady, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Jason Manford, James McConville, Peter Polycarpou, Imelda Staunton.

The gripping, moving, wonderful musical by Stephen Sondheim. About a man, Sweeney Todd, unjustly wronged and sent to prison so that the judge who sent him away to an Australian prison, can get the wronged man’s wife. Sweeney escapes and comes back to London looking for revenge. In his previous life he was named Benjamin Barker and was a good barber. He comes back as Sweeney Todd and is still that barber. His intention is to lure the judge to his shop for a shave and cut his throat. But first he practices his technique on unsuspecting customers.

Sweeney is aided by Mrs. Lovett who makes the worst pies in London until she hooks up with Sweeney. What to do with all those bodies. Hmmm. Lemme see….Yes you got it. The bodies become pie filler.

Jonathan Kent has directed this with chilling clarity and considerable detail. When we come into the theatre there are people in silhouette scrubbing the floor. A man sits at a table, hunched over, writing perhaps. When the show begins, the man at the table begins the first chorus of “Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.”

We see how Lucy, Sweeney’s innocent, trusting wife is summoned to the Judge’s house where she is raped by both the Judge and his Beadle. Going for the jugular in this hideous world of the play is the intention and Kent does it with economy and effectiveness.

In his zeal to kill the Judge who finally does show up, Sweeney has to kill a beggar woman who has been lurking around in order to get her out of the way. When he does realize that the beggar woman is in fact his wife Lucy he reacts not with a howl, as I’ve seen elsewhere, but with a whispered, “Oh no.” No matter how it’s done, it always crushes me.

He reacts by seeking revenge on Mrs. Lovett who told him Lucy was dead. He throws her in the oven. There is nothing left for Sweeney to live for. He knows that Tobias, a waif that he and Mrs. Lovett have taken in, is in that bake-house and he has Sweeney’s razor. He comes up behind Sweeney. Sweeney raises his head so his neck is exposed and Tobias slashes him.

Then the onlookers begin to wash the floor as in the first scene, getting rid of the blood, guts, gore and evidence that Sweeney was there. It’s an interesting take on the beginning and end.

Casting Michael Ball is an interesting choice because he’s always thought of as a dimple-cheeked cherubic faced romantic hero. But Ball has triumphed of late to leave that image behind. He played Edna in Hairspray. Here he plays Sweeney Todd, and his first entrance grabs you as he bellows out, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” because his eyes are dead and for all intents and purposes, so is Sweeney.

He is still in his anger and that’s frightening. He sits in a chair, we realize later that it’s his special red leather barber’s chair in which with the flick of a lever the bodies are dispatched from the chair to the bake-house below. Ball spits out the lyrics in a clear, strong, baritone voice and when he holds that razor high, and sings that his arm is complete and alive again, it’s both frightening and moving. The razor squirts blood with every cut of the neck. It’s not overdone. And it’s effective.

Imelda Staunton, a powerhouse in her own right, plays Mrs. Lovett. She is crafty, charming, anxious to please, and obviously in love with Sweeney Todd and always was, no matter what his name was before.

The height difference is funny and intriguing. Ball is tall and Staunton seems so short she fits under his arm. An interesting visual.

Anthony Ward’s set is huge. Catwalks, many levels above the stage, and at all levels characters look down at what is going on. As if the whole of London is watching and doing nothing. Mark Henderson’s lighting is muted, moody, dim and dingy, just like the place and story he is ‘illuminating.’

One of my favourite musicals, done really well.

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