“No denying times is hard sir, even harder than the worst pies in London”
This may surprise some people but Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is actually the same age as me given that I have been 29 for the last 3 years! As one of the few not to receive a major production in London in his 80th birthday year, the 1979 show Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street now receives attention from Chichester Festival Theatre with an excellent revival that will surely end up in the West End in due course. Jonathan Kent’s production relocates Hugh Wheeler’s book to the 1930s, playing on the overtones of economic crisis and undertones of emotional fascism, whilst Sondheim’s classic music and lyrics create worlds of emotional intensity. The story centres on Benjamin Barker, a skilled barber falsely charged and sentenced to transportation to Australia by a corrupt judge. Fifteen years later he returns to discover he has lost his wife and child, and so reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, searching out for ways to be avenged. A chance meeting with former landlady Mrs Lovett sees him set up shop again as a barber in the room above her pie shop and the unlikely pair find a mutually convenient business arrangement as Todd finds it impossible to control his murderous urges and Lovett is in desperate need of cheap fillings for her pies…
Imelda Staunton is ideal casting for Mrs Lovett: younger readers will certainly recognise her as Dolores Umbridge but may not be aware of her outstanding musical theatre credentials which formed a major part of her earlier career, including an Olivier award winning turn as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, also by Sondheim. The comic business of the first half with her discovery of the first body and the later ‘A Little Priest’ is as good as you would dare hope it could be, but where she really excels is in the second half as she delves into the darker side of this woman. The desperation exposed by Todd’s lack of enthusiasm for her seaside dream cuts deep but then as her young charge edges ever closer to the truth of what is going on, the ugly truth rears its head with a frankly terrifying rendition of ‘Not While I’m Around’ – don’t make eye contact with her at the end of the song, it will scar you for life! And Michael Ball as the titular Demon Barber is also terrifically good, he’s undergone quite the makeover and is virtually unrecognisable, looking more like a brownshirt than anything. He captures the laconic cruelty and the glowering menace of a man shorn of his moral framework and his rich voice swoops around Sondheim’s score with consummate ease.
With such strong leads performing so superbly, the supporting cast have to try their hardest to prevent being overshadowed. In some cases there’s no problem at all as in James McConville’s determined young Tobias – superb when duetting with Staunton – and Luke Brady’s Anthony who invests his oft-repeated Johanna with passionate yearning. I felt Lucy May Barker needed crisper diction, her speech and singing both sweet but neither ringing with the requisite clarity or demonstrating much character, likewise John Bowe’s Judge Turpin didn’t make quite enough impact for such a pivotal role. The sizeable ensemble feels a little extravagant given how little they have to do – making them put creepy clowns masks on for a flashback seemed a little unnecessary – but they do sound glorious, especially when Nicholas Skilbeck’s 15-strong orchestra is in full flow and it was particularly nice to see the fabulous Anton Stephans in there too.
Anthony Ward’s design is excellently put together with much kinetic energy: the central box atop which Todd carries out his dirty business allows for his barber’s chair to deposit his victims down a chute and is constantly revolving; Mrs Lovett’s kitchen and living room are compact but beautifully mounted and there’s some effective use of lifts, people sinking out of sight on a regular basis. But the star of the show is Mark Henderson’s lighting design, or rather his shadow design, as the whole production is suffused with a darkness, the gloom only occasionally pierced by shafts of light and the resulting shadows that play all around are highly atmospheric. The only minor point would be that it does feel like a set designed for a proscenium arch theatre – perhaps a nod to the likely London transfer – much of the action is played out to the front, the garret atop the stage curves round quite tightly and so though one wouldn’t miss too much, I’d advise against booking on the far sides.
This is a highly effective production of Sweeney Todd which fully merits its luxury casting, Peter Polycarpou is employed for what is essentially a cameo here, and Staunton and Ball make an unmissable coupling. Not everything is perfect, with some weak links in the supporting cast and the 1930s interpretation losing its way a bit in the second half with the visits to Bedlam which remain very Victorian in spirit, but there is so much to commend it that these small misgivings are easily overlooked and I had no compunction about joining the rest of the audience on their feet to give a deservedly raucous reception.