This is the second superb musical from Chichester Festival Theatre to arrive in the West End this year. But while Singin’ in the Rain has the cast wading in water, here it is more likely to be blood. Jonathan Kent’s masterful Sweeney Todd seizes on Sondheim’s rich, pungent musical with glee, relishing its excesses yet still savouring its delicacy. It’s a dark, glinting treat.
Michael Ball, as the murderous barber, is a revelation. Gone is the dimpled cherubic individual who beams at us from the programme pages; in his place is a brooding, taciturn lump of a man, a slick of dark hair falling over one eye. He’s solid and pasty-faced like a dough man – perhaps that is why pie-maker Mrs Lovett has such a crush on him. But Ball lets us see the wild emotions bubbling beneath the surface: the bitter sense of injustice that has festered during his enforced absence from London and that sharpens into a desire for revenge on his return. The moment when he shifts from specific murderous intent towards the judge who wronged him and into a psychopathic loathing of mankind is, if you will pardon the pun, hair-raising.
But Ball’s excellent Sweeney is half of a whole here. He is matched throughout by an outstanding performance from Imelda Staunton as the ever-practical Mrs Lovett. Staunton brings a wonderful comic timing to the part, balancing the comedy and horror on a knife edge. Peering into the chest where Sweeney has concealed his first victim, she shrieks in dismay, all the while edging closer for a better look. Her apron and slippers conceal a ruthless drive and a shrewd mind. “Business needs a lift: think of it as thrift” she trills soothingly as she spots a way of harnessing Sweeney’s murderous urge into a handy source of pie meat. But Staunton also finds desperation in her character. Her fantasy solo about a life by the sea is absurdly touching and her icy stare, when she realises that she will have to dispose of the boy she has taken in, is that of a fanatic.
Kent swaps the original Victorian setting for a 1930s backdrop, which produces some infelicities (transportation, for example), but introduces a fresh twist to the hardship that drives the story. Here the cast scurry like rats round Anthony Ward’s murky set of stairways and trapdoors. And there are darker shadows still: the idea of efficient extermination of human beings takes on a particularly chilling edge.
The love story between Anthony (Luke Brady) and Johanna (Lucy May Barker) struggles to gain a purchase in the gloom and the show isn’t always as fleet as it could be. But Kent and his cast control wonderfully the sudden switches in mood, sweeping the story along to its gripping and grisly ending.