Jonathan’s Kent’s fluid, lively production of Stephen Sondheim’s bloodthirsty 1979 musical transfers snugly into London’s Adelphi Theatre following its sell-out run at Chichester last year. With Sondheim’s reputation at its peak following the recent spate of productions to celebrate his 80th birthday, and doubtless also boosted by the success of Tim Burton’s film version (still unseen by me), this is a show that has generated an incredible amount of audience goodwill, judging by the palpable sense of pre-show excitement in the theatre and the rapturous response that it received. That response is, for the most part, deserved, for this is a highly entertaining evening that succeeds in beguiling even those of us who are far from being dedicated Sondheim-ites.
One of the production’s principal pleasures is the opportunity it offers to see Michael Ball bleaching every trace of cuddly geniality out of his stage persona as he takes on the title role of the vengeful barber. A glowering, menacing presence, Ball is in commanding form - and superb voice - throughout, and he’s partnered superbly by Imelda Staunton (last seen seductively wrapping her arm around an accordion in A Delicate Balance) who, benefitting from most of Sondheim's best lyrics, brings Mrs. Lovett to gleaming comic life: when she comes up with the notorious pie-filling scheme you practically see the light-bulb go on over her head. The pair’s interactions on the standout songs - "The Worst Pies in London,” "A Little Priest" and "By the Sea" - are the evening’s highlights. In support, there’s distinguished work from John Bowe as Todd's antagonist Judge Turpin, from Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford and from James McConville as Tobias, while Mark Henderson’s lighting and Anthony Ward’s clever set design contribute a bracingly moody and brooding ambience to the proceedings.
What I don’t buy, so much, are the emotional elements here. For a work rooted in human pain - Sweeney’s grief at the loss of his family; Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited love for Sweeney - this musical doesn’t generate much of an emotional charge, while the Johanna/Anthony subplot feels undercooked, despite competent turns from Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady in these roles here. But as a ghoulish blackly comic satire of entrepreneurship, Sweeney Todd works, and it’s hard to imagine seeing it more slickly staged than in Kent’s confident production. Not to be missed.
Booking until 22nd September. Website here.