Sweeney Todd - The Adelphi Theatre, London

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green enjoys a night of music, romance and razor sharp humour in the company of 'the demon barber' and Mrs Lovett.

Sweeney ToddMusicals don’t come any darker than Sweeny Todd with its blend of black humour, murder and mayhem but this is one of Stephen Sondheim’s best works and it emerges as fresh as ever in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s much lauded new production which has now moved into the Adelphi Theatre in the West End.

The anti-hero of the title is an escaped convict who comes home to kill the judge who wrongly imprisoned him raped his wife and adopted his daughter. He strikes up a friendship with Mrs Lovett, the proprietor of a down-at-heel pie shop, whose business starts to boom when she hits on the ingenious idea of serving Todd’s victims in pastry and gravy, beginning with an “Italian barber” who recognises Sweeney and threatens to expose him. The thirst for revenge turns Sweeney, formerly a skilled barber, from a loving family man into a demonic serial killer as throats are slit and customers become unwitting cannibals, as Mrs Lovett serves “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd!”

Director Jonathan Kent has updated the story from the 19th century to what seems to be the Thirties but the show still carries a strong emotional charge. The legendary fable of the demon barber is retold by a 20th century chorus, reminding us that the story, while retaining its Victorian echoes, still has a particular relevance on showing how inequality and injustice remain a permanent scar on city life. Furthermore the chilling atmosphere is strongly conveyed from the prologue, with its screams and factory whistles giving away to Mrs Lovett preparing her stomach turning pies filled with the vermin that were part of everyday London life.

Stephen Sondheim’s haunting music with its witty, eloquent lyrics does much to drive the story forward – I found the numbers Joanna and By the Seaside particularly memorable.

The production boasts two excellent performances from Michael Ball, virtually unrecognisable with his beard, fleshy, pallid face and side-parted hair, a man with a genuine grievance desperate to turn himself into an angel of death, as the brooding demon barber, and Imelda Staunton as the deceptively sweet and chirpy Mrs Lovett, whose tender love for Sweeney is truly touching. Strong support is provided by Lucy May Barker as Sweeney’s imprisoned daughter, Luke Brady as a sailor who initially helps Todd escape and later falls in love with his daughter, John Bowe as a sly, evil judge and Peter Polycarpou as his sadistic sidekick.

A stunning musical then which moves seamlessly from the romantic to the discordant and the horrific to the comical but remains razor sharp at all times.

Sweeney Todd
Adelphi Theatre, London

Runs until September 22

Box office: 0844 412 4650

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