Review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi *****

London is enjoying something of a dalliance with the dramatic dastard at present.  Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull is currently sweeping all before her at the Cambridge Theatre, and now Michael Ball gives us a lugubrious, towering performance in Sweeney Todd.

Coming to London after a critical and commercial success at Chichester, Jonathan Kent’s realisation of Stephen Sondheim’s sanguine opera is a salient reminder of how impressive and relevant musical theatre can be.

Heading a heavyweight cast, Ball exorcises any accusations of triviality in his performance. His Todd is a surprisingly sombre, menacing creature.  His nativity seems forged in the mist and murk of London’s sewers; his colossal presence dominates the stage as he plosively spits out his lyrics. Vocally, Ball is breathtaking, he moves seamlessly from rich baritone to lyric tenor with ease, creating moments of astonishing beauty, particularly in his haunting rendition of My Friends.

As the titular Todd, it is possible that Ball could overpower the piece, but in Kent’s outstanding production, there is little chance of this.

The set, by Anthony Ward, curls and twists evocatively, as much a character in this drama as any of the players.  Mark Henderson’s lighting design slashes across the stage like a vicious razor, accentuating the drama and intensifying the brutal, disturbing darkness of Sondheim’s score.  The ensemble range around a viewing platform, evoking a macabre audience at a Victorian post-mortem.  Kent’s direction never shies away from revealing the  profligate soul beneath.  This is vital, crucial work that belies charges of frivolity so often levied at musical theatre.

John Bowe’s dissolute Judge Turpin positively revels in his immorality, while Robert Burt delights as flamboyant, extravagant Pirelli.  Peter Polycarpou and James McConville excel as Beadle Bamford and Tobias respectively, while Luke Brady’s Anthony and Lucy May Barker’s Joanna provide the sweetness, sometimes saccharine, to this deliciously bitter confection.

Imelda Staunton astonishes thoroughly; a magnificently inventive Mrs Lovett, she breaks the heart and turns the stomach in equal measure

As Todd’s libertine partner in all things nefarious Imelda Staunton astonishes thoroughly; a magnificently inventive Mrs Lovett, she breaks the heart and turns the stomach in equal measure.  One can only wonder why it has taken her so long to return to musical theatre, and revel in her choosing Mrs Lovatt as her homecoming.  She brings depth as an actor and a musical sensibility to the role that will surely define the part for a generation.

But no one player is greater than Sondheim’s richly expressive, eerie, terrifying score.  Under Nicholas Skilbeck’s baton it seems to find new life and rhythms, discovering resonances and uncovering a personality of its own.

In a fittingly lavish production, with such an august cast, Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd would normally hope to be settling into a run of considerable longevity.  Alas, this delight has a strictly limited season.  Catch it while you can, and forever more be able to say “I was there” at an genre defining moment. Musical theatre has never seemed more feral, more electrifying and more terrifying than this.

***** 5 stars
Runs until 22nd September
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