The opening of Sweeney Todd sends shivers down my spine unlike anything else. It is this show that illustrates the true genius of Stephen Sondheim. I was attending on my ownsome, not a plight I would often consider, but after performing in this unforgettable musical at university, I couldn’t turn down the offer of a single ticket.
This score has provoked much debate for musicologists and critics alike, who struggle to define the genre of Sweeney Todd. The music combines operatic and musical theatre elements. Indeed it was the first ‘musical’ to be performed at the Royal Opera House, in a breathtakingly grand production I saw many years ago. It is staged infrequently due to the troublesome nature of the narrative and the numerous faux murders on stage which do not lend themselves for easy interpretation!
I had high expectations when taking my seat in the stalls at the Adelphi Theatre last week – would the transferred Chichester show live up to my Sweeney standards? The technical team behind this production have created an imaginative and visually exciting show. Director Jonathan Kent understands Sondheim’s intentions and presents a unique but clear vision of this tale. The lighting design by Mark Henderson is incredibly effective, highlighting the necessary gruesome clues in the story, while creating an atmospheric environment.
The stage is suitably macabre: a threatening metal structure with staircases either side and a balcony which allows the chorus to peer out ominously. The mist and dim lighting causes the stage to fade eerily at the back, a mysterious backdrop for the tale of the demon barber. As the setting changes frequently, the set must be versatile and adaptable; Sweeney’s station sweeps on with a red chair gleaming maliciously while the pie shop is located on the left hand side.
Despite its humourous qualities (making pies out of priests, tinkers and tailors), this production manages to capture the vicious, cut throat deaths very efficiently! It must have required endless rehearsals to perfect these executions! The Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton partnership will certainly bring in big audiences, but the rest of the cast are equally exemplary. I loved the doll-faced Lucy May Barker who has a suitably shrill voice and naïve nature, perfect for the part. James McConville makes a brilliantly scrawny and scrappy Tobias, the young boy apprentice of Todd’s rival. It is a tricky role with a very high range for a young man but McConville dashes about the stage singing and acting superbly throughout, his rendition of ‘Not while I’m around’ is gorgeous.
Last time I saw Michael Ball on stage he was donning a wig, a fat suit and a sparkly dress, strutting his stuff as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. This performance as Mr Todd could not be more different, a menacing, destroyed man desperate and disillusioned after fifteen years imprisonment and the loss of his beloved family. Ball seems equally natural in this role thrilling the audience with prolonged stares and furiously powerful singing. Michael Ball is known for his musical expertise but who knew Imelda Staunton could sing so well? She excels as the grubby widower and pie-maker, she tackles the tongue twister songs with great expertise, expressing each syllable with impressive clarity and power. Every word could be heard even when the audience were laughing relentlessly!
Musically, the ensemble is faultless, soaring through the complex cross rhythms and unexpected harmonies. It is a challenging score even for seasoned professionals. The razor sharp band play the score beautifully, led by the talented Nicholas Skilbeck.
This is storytelling at its very best. Sondheim’s contribution to the modern musical is rivalled by none, this production of Sweeney Todd illustrates why.
Continues until 22 September, book here.