Review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre, 10/04/2012


When? Tuesday 10th April 2012
Where? Adelphi Theatre, London, stalls
Who? Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton, John Bowe, Peter Polycarpou, Robert Burt, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Lucy May Barker, Luke Brady, James McConville, Simeon Truby, Valda Aviks, Will Barratt, Josie Benson, Emily Bull, John Coates, Daniel Graham, Robert Irons, Robine Landi, John McManus, Tim Morgan, Aoife Nally, Adam Pearce, Wendy Somerville, Adam Vaughan, Kerry Washington, Annabelle Williams, Kimberly Blake, Helen Colby, Matthew Gent, Robert Traynor

I first heard about this new production of Sweeney Todd (incorrectly billed as a revival of the original production) back in 2010, when rumours abounded that none other than Michael Ball and screen and stage regular Imelda Staunton were attached to star. Naturally, when announced later that year, a visit became an inevitability – even though it would mean waiting for the nailed-on West End transfer, rather than a trek to the quaint Chichester Festival Theatre. In hindsight, I am quite relieved that I did not venture to the West Sussex city, as the time and effort simply would not have been worth it for the mixed bag that Jonathan Kent’s production offers. I am even more relieved that on arriving at the Adelphi Theatre, there was no dreaded unwelcome white slip of paper hiding inside the programme announcing the indisposition of either lead actor. Without their respective star turns, this production would wither into mediocrity.

It is worth mentioning that I am a big fan of Sondheim’s (arguably) finest show and have seen numerous incarnations over the years, from the British touring actor-musician production to full scale stagings, Sweeney Todd has proven to be a very tricky show to perfect and sadly, this production – whilst still offering the occasional moment of brilliance – is far from perfect.

Kent’s Sweeney Todd doesn’t really know what it is. An attempt is allegedly made to bring the setting of Todd’s London forward to the first quarter of the 20th century; but short of changing some costumes and devaluing some crucial plot points (such as the exaggerated nature of the rich and powerful’s status over the poor working class, much more the ‘reality’ in Sondheim’s original vision for the staging as told by the book and lyrics) there is no real point to it. The characters as directed by Kent are generally two dimensional and their motives unclear; hindered by less than spectacular performances from the supporting cast, everybody’s actions seem actually rather vacuous in substance or importance. Is John Bowe’s Judge Turpin a cruel, evil monster and pervert or a jolly old bumbling fool who, on the night I attended, actually wins more laughs than comedy foreigner Pirelli? Both are offered, neither are convincing. Peter Polycarpou, still a wonderful talent in British musical theatre, is underused and wasted clutching onto a mockney accent for dear life. Luke Brady’s wide-eyed young Anthony is as believable as a drama school graduate singing ‘Songs from Sweeney Todd’ in cabaret; Lucy May Barker’s Johanna has to balance not only a very ill-fitting rug on her head, but also singing some of the wettest material in the show. ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ is always a bit of a drag and Barker’s rendition was no exception. The rest of the cast boasts a great deal of experienced heads; Robert Irons, Tim Morgan and Adam Pearce – opening his third show in a row at the Adelphi – are all present and correct in the ensemble, without making any impact on the overall standard.

Anthony Ward’s set and costume design leaves a lot to be desired. The Adelphi Theatre has terrible sight lines and a very high stage which makes director Jonathan Kent’s decision to base a lot of the important action at the very back of the stage gobsmacking. From my seat in the middle of the stalls, I could barely see Sweeney’s final, crucial moments. The fashionable use of vertical staging is unnecessary and fragments the large ensemble needlessly. The production feels, in truth, rather cheap, not unlike a decent sized touring production headed by two exceptional leads. The costumes are unremarkable at best, but the wigs are terrible (Ball and Staunton’s aside) which I find unforgivable for a production of this scale.

Put simply, this average production is carried by joint stars Ball and Staunton, who give truly outstanding performances. They interact and compliment each other perfectly as the macabre duo with Staunton in particularly offering a lot of new ideas to the role of Mrs. Lovett. Her digust-turned-to-arousal at the discovery of Pirelli’s body was as funny as it was creepy, qualities Staunton has both of in spades in the role. The benefit of casting such a superb actress is plain for all to see as her performance is grounded in a very strong acting turn with the added benefit of a surprisingly good singing voice. Michael Ball is usually the exact opposite in terms of priority, always willing to show off his excellent singing voice sometimes at the detriment to commitment to the role. However, to his credit as Sweeney he too grounds his performance in his acting, never slipping into ‘Michael Ball’ mode, yet still singing beautifully. His ‘Epiphany’ scene was superb and the one moment of breathtaking staging in the whole production, highlighted by Mark Henderson’s fine lighting design (the strongest design element of the production). But it is their time together on stage, of which where is plenty, that is simply a joy to watch as both performers have a blast experimenting – and pulling it off. ‘A Little Priest’ is hilarious as the two actors compete in a masterclass of comic acting.

But Sweeney Todd delivered in this way looks tired and feels dated as a piece. The minor change of setting feels gimmicky (if barely noticeable) and fails as an attempt to make it more relevant to a 2012 audience, making this production a plain homage to the original. But, and it’s a big one, Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton make this production worth seeing. The pair are easily the best I have seen or heard in the roles and their time on stage is worth the ticket money alone. This is not a great Sweeney but Ball and Staunton are sensational.

- Harry Zing

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