Not for the faint hearted, Stephen Sondheim’s dark and twisted musical Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has now transferred to the Adelphi Theatre after a sell-out season at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The new production is directed by Jonathan Kent and designed, splendidly, by Anthony Ward. The libretto by Hugh Wheeler, based on the original play by Christopher Bond, is powerful and emotionally charged.
Set in the nineteenth century among the murky streets of London, the production follows a talented barber who changes his name to Sweeney Todd on a quest for justice after years of false imprisonment in Australia. Upon his arrival back in London, he finds that his family has been ruined by the same judge who sentenced him, and he begins to plot his revenge. With the help of the grim and terrifyingly entertaining pie-shop owner, Mrs. Lovett, the barber begins his mission for justice, although the dubious pair both have their own agendas.
The West End cast includes the well-known actors Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball along with a plethora of supporting talents. Mrs. Lovett, played by Imelda Staunton, is the true star of the show. Most will recognise her from her performances in Harry Potter or Vera Drake, but her outstanding stamina and musical talent were a pleasant shock for me. Michael Ball too, playing Sweeney Todd, was nothing short of exquisite. His fine singing and gentle voice expressed the role’s tortured personality and Sweeney Todd was revealed as dangerous and threatening but also tender and even sympathetic. With such superbly cast leading roles, the other members of the ensemble definitely had a tough time taking hold of the spotlight, although they sounded magnificent, especially with the support of the large orchestra, I found myself looking forward to another duet and more focused scenes.
The set successfully suggests the misty dankness of Dickensian London and Sondheim’s music remains an operatic success. The stage is dark and raw, with spotlights moving upstage, downstage and crossing all corners to capture the large ensemble scenes and construct the dark drama of the remarkably chilling ones. Unexpected bursts of loud noise, screeching steam pipes, beams of bright light, and smoke effects keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
I have been to the Adelphi Theatre on many occasions, but Anthony Ward’s set design and use of space is my favourite to date. The raw, exposed metal, revolving rooms and raised central platform where Sweeney Todd’s barber shop lays (and victims fall), all organically change and don’t interrupt scenes. People are faded out using clever lighting and the sets are rotated so that the action is consistently rolling on.
Even though I have seen other versions of this revenge drama, this production is the most unsettling – yet humorous – version by far. I was chilled, thrilled and even lifted out of my seat on many occasions. To me, that deserves more than a standing ovation!
Sweeney Todd is taking bookings at the Adelphi Theatre until 22nd September 2012, with evening performances Monday to Saturday 7:30pm, and matinees on Wednesday and Saturday 2:30pm. The show runs 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval and is suitable for audiences aged 12+. Parental guidance advised.