There could not be two more different musicals than Singin’ in the Rain and Sweeney Todd but the current West End productions of these shows leave no doubt that Chichester Festival Theatre continues on something of a roll.
Imelda Staunton (Mrs Lovett) and Michael Ball (Sweeney Todd) in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street at the Adelphi Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Just weeks after the opening of Rain at the Palace, comes the regional theatre’s powerful and darkly disturbing take on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterful retelling of this urban folk tale.
Placing the work in a relatively large space like the Adelphi could have undermined its melodrama - I still recall the intense intimacy of the 1993 National production in the Cottesloe - but director Jonathan Kent, set designer Anthony Ward and Mark Henderson (lighting) brilliantly create a claustrophobic world poisoned by revenge, greed, lust and regret.
From the very first scene, when a grille rises to reveal Michael Ball’s intimidating villain, Kent’s staging exerts a cinematic quality which grips an audience and does not let go until the bloody conclusion. Add Henderson’s sepulchral lighting and Ward’s stunning set, with its balconies, spiral staircases, revolving stage and trap doors, and the result is a truly compelling piece of storytelling.
Much has been made of Ball’s transformation into Sweeney and it is true that at times he is unrecognisable as the popular musical theatre personality audiences know so well. Yet it is more than an image change that makes the actor’s performance such a triumph, it is the physicality and passion he brings to the whole affair. When he stands on the raised stage of his barber’s shop, singing of his frustration and anger, the effect is captivating.
Alongside him is the dynamo that is Imelda Staunton, offering a lesson in comic timing during numbers like A Little Priest and By the Sea and a masterclass in pathos when Mrs Lovett realises the boy she has taken in may threaten her plans with Sweeney.
Fine support is offered by a strong ensemble, with Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Beggar Woman, James McConville as Tobias and Luke Brady’s Anthony making a particular impression. But the night belongs to Ball and Staunton and to a show that pulls on the emotions other musicals cannot dare to reach.