The Adelphi Theatre, The Strand, London playing until 22 September
By Ryan Eiland, Editor, Best Loved Hotels.
It’s difficult for me to be entirely objective about “Sweeney Todd”. This is the very show which so thoroughly captured my imagination at age 16 in a modest provincial university theatre production that I was never really the same again. Growing up in a city without much opportunity to see live performance, the operatic power of “Sweeney” forever opened my eyes to the all-powerful combination of theatre and music, whether it be opera, dance or that popular form once quaintly called “musical comedy.” Much of my all-consuming theatre obsession can be credited to (or blamed on) the expressive perfection of this celebrated score.
“Sweeney Todd” is subtitled a “musical thriller”, and Sondheim builds suspense primarily through music, so more than 80% of the show is sung (should you want to test this hypothesis, try watching your favourite scary film with the sound off – without underscoring and sound effects even shocking images lose their power). Happily, though, comedy keeps popping to the surface amid all the tragic butchery and Grand Guignol. A lifetime of listening to the sterling original cast album with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury has made it difficult for me to appreciate most subsequent revivals and concert performances – the original inflections were so persuasive they burrow their way into the ear, and comparisons are inevitable. The current production, masterfully directed by Jonathan Kent, is the first since to fully re-imagine the all the beauty and horror of Sondheim’s masterpiece and completely make me forget the original production.
The sheer intensity of Michael Ball as Sweeney and Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett is nothing less than a revelation. From Mr. Ball’s scaldingly bilious first entry, every
moment has been thoroughly re-invented. At every turn we always feel the full specificity of character; never are we left with the generalised emotions sign-posted to the back row by semaphore in all too many musical performances. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is both the funniest I’ve ever seen and the most tragic; you feel every nuance of her overwhelming love for Sweeney, and her amoral practicality makes perfect sense as the complement to his murderous madness. These are performances of Shakespearean majesty and intensity put at the service of musical theatre, and I can only feel grateful to have witnessed them.
I can’t recommend this revival highly enough to both newcomers to “Sweeney Todd” as well as those who have been humming its tunes for years. The performance I attended occurred over Jubilee weekend, and after the curtain call the full cast and 15-piece band led the audience in “God Save the Queen”. These renditions can sometimes be embarrassed or half-hearted affairs, but here the audience leapt to their feet and sang with more gusto than I’ve ever heard before. Life imitated art: the dedicated ferocity of the preceding two hours somehow made us collectively want to salute the actors (and the Queen!) with a spirited performance of our own, and for one brief shining moment, the very rafters of The Adelphi Theatre shook with a very un-English and thoroughly intoxicating joy.
To book tickets to “Sweeney Todd” at a discount, click here.