A couple of Saturdays ago Owen and I ventured once again out of the Smoke to see a show in the provinces. This time it was to the leafy sleepiness of Chichester to see one of my favorite musicals, Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.
It has since been announced that it will transfer to the Adelphi next year but I am glad we saw it in it's original thrust stage setting.
The last production we saw of SWEENEY was John Doyle's at the Ambassadors which started my antipathy for shows with actor-musicians and was really no way to introduce Owen to the show but no such problems here: Jonathan Kent's production is as it should be seen.
Sondheim himself is very keen on it - he stayed on in Chichester after seeing it to see it a second time. Jonathan Kent's vision for the show is to bring it visually forward in time to a gloomy, shadowy Patrick Hamilton-esque late 1920s/early 1930s London, suggesting backstreet warehouses with smashed windows, metal grills and clattering roll-down shutters. A semi-circular gallery topped off Anthony Ward's set giving a good vantage point for members of the chorus to watch the proceedings.
Kent's direction is clean and sharp, giving the action in Hugh Wheeler's marvellous book a real momentum which builds to the show's shattering final act. I have long said that the last section of SWEENEY TODD. if handled well, can be one of the most thrilling theatrical pleasures and so it was here.
The big news around the production has been the casting of Mr. Show Business himself, Michael Ball, as the wronged barber out for bloody revenge. Not the most obvious casting but on the whole I think he succeeded in giving a fine, unexpected performance.
However to give this performance, he underplayed to such a degree that it rendered his Sweeney a trifle colourless and monotone.
Sweeney is a role that does demand a quality of disconnectedness and muffled rage but other actors I have seen play the part have managed to thread though the pea soup fog of his character a glittering dark humour which was hard to find with Ball as he was too busy downplaying. However it cannot be denied that the show probably would not have been staged had he not agreed to play the role.
His banked-down performance was all the more noticeable compared to the tsunami of Imelda Staunton's Mrs. Lovett. Imelda gave the performance I was expecting but that didn't detract from it's pure pleasure.Imelda's Nellie Lovett was the engine for the show, constantly scuttling about in her fur-lined ankle boots. She easily handled the changes from humour to horror while all the time keeping the undertow to Nellie's character strong, her passion for the former lodger who has now re-entered her life.
It was this multi-layered, naturalistic approach which stood out so against Ball's performance - in particular with the dramatic shift in the final act when Nellie's deception is fully revealed. It's almost 30 years on from first seeing her as one of the "Hot Box Girls" in Richard Eyre's landmark National Theatre production of GUYS AND DOLLS and her career has been a joy to follow.
In mentioning GUYS, it is interesting to compare her performance with Julia McKenzie's award-winning one at the National in 1993. Julia's was a gin-soaked harridan straight out of a Penny Dreadful illustration where as Imelda's is played more naturalistic. Both valid, both excellent. The show also benefited from two very hissable villains in John Bowe's venal Judge Turpin and, in particular, Peter Polycarpou's deliciously odious, bowler-hatted Beadle Bamford. The juves were a bit colourless sadly but James McConville was very good as Tobias as was Robert Burt's Pirelli - it was a delightful touch that Pirelli's travelling vehicle should look like a converted ice-cream van! Sondheim's glorious score was well played by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck and Mark Henderson's lighting design was wonderfully atmospheric.The show is due in at the Adelphi in March 2012 and I urge you to see it. It would be a bloody crime if you missed it!