The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is – forgive the cliche – the talk of the town. By which I mean, I began buzzing with excitement when I saw the posters for it on the London Underground, after which I found myself talking excitedly to at least three or four other people. The majority of those people have responded in glowing terms about the production and this has been reflected in some of the critics’ takes. Add to that the advertised limited run and the Theatreland magic is complete. Everyone will flock to the show and because they have audiences will almost certainly come out of the theatre convinced they’ve seen a brilliant show even in fact if they haven’t.
It’s difficult to maintain that cynical view when you sit in the stalls for this show however.
When I went last night, the audience – all of them almost en masse – stood to applaud when leads Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton swept on to stage for the curtain call. The looks on their faces led me to hope that perhaps this was the first night they’d experienced such a reaction from the crowd, leading me to feel like us lot were incredibly special. The performances we witnessed during this particular show could not have been coincidences. They were far from chance. The quality us audience saw on stage was undoubtedly the result of careful casting, precision directing and evidence of hard-to-manufacture chemistry.
If I have to pick only one star (I don’t have to, but it feels right to), it has to be Staunton whose masterful characterisation of the feisty yet dangerously vulnerable Mrs Lovett puts the actress up there on the same pedestal as Angela Lansbury’s original Broadway performance.
Luke Brady as lovestruck sailor Anthony conveyed youthful enthusiasm and determination with an irresistible crystal clear voice. While the pairing of John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou as Judge Turpin and the Beadle respectively helped ramp up the menace in the tale.
I wasn’t entirely sure about Michael Ball, at first.
Initially it felt as though he wasn’t menacing enough. In some of the early numbers the voice instantly recognisable as Michael Ball’s (that made famous from his early Lloyd-Webber roles and Marius in Les Miserables) made Sweeney momentarily sound like a handsome man with a cheesy grin. Those times when Sweeney got angry, Ball appeared at first to be stiff.
But the expert casting of Ball was made obvious during Epiphany in the first act. Sweeney has missed his chance to slit Judge Turpin’s throat and all hell breaks loose. This number was electrifying. It was also one of the few occasions I can remember when I have been so completely focussed on a performance on stage that everything and everyone else around me was completely shut out. Ball epitomised the title of the number. He was terrifying. Sweeney was terrifying. The collision course was set. I was exhausted come the interval.
After Sweeney’s maniacal defiance during the second act, Ball was able to draw on that still youthful voice to bring out an agonising vulnerability in the central character I’d not heard in previous productions. And it was because of his youthful voice that made our relationship with the central character all the more complex. He’s a murderer. He’s a baddy. We should hate him. But we feel sorry for him, painfully so. Ball’s voice made it such that we might possibly have entertained the idea of giving Sweeney a second chance, if only the libretto directed the composer and performers otherwise.
If you’re squeamish, you will find the throat-slitting really quite unpleasant to watch. I did. Mind you, everyone else around was laughing. So maybe that says something about me. That aside, this is a show you can’t afford not to see. And it’s not good enough to say you won’t go because you don’t like Sondheim. That’s a lame excuse.
Sweeney Todd runs at the Aldephi Theatre on The Strand in London until 22 September 2012.