Based on a 1970 play by Christopher Bond, this retelling of the story of the 'Demon Barber of Fleet Street' first appeared in 1979 and boasts a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Coming from the prolific Chichester Festival Theatre, this is one of those productions that really is stunning both in its execution and in terms of the story and music, making it one of the must-see musicals of, perhaps, the decade.
The story of Sweeney Todd emanates from the England of the middle of the nineteenth century when industrialisation was sweeping its way through the country, bringing with it a grim, grimy life for the less fortunate majority. And that grim reality of industrialism is amply reflected in Anthony Ward's powerful design, and interwoven into Jonathan Kent's superb staging.
Michael Ball is back on the London stage leading a wonderful cast as the brooding barber. He's brilliantly supported by Imelda Staunton as Nellie Lovett, whose pies are so dire that even she recognises them as being of inferior quality. But then she spots an unusual opportunity to improve her entrepreneurial endeavours by teaming up with SweeneyTodd.
The show flows elegantly from one scene to another without intrusive breaks for scene changes. That might seem a minor point, but it really does make a difference to both the pace and enjoyment of this piece. Of course, it is not always possible to avoid gaps between scenes, but here the nature of the story benefits enormously from the continuity.
Michael Ball is a brooding, bruiser of a Sweeney Todd. He hardly smiles, even when he's engaged in musical banter with Mrs Lovett, and his hair falls over his forehead almost casting a sinister shadow over his entire persona, taking its cue from the line in the first song from the ensemble who tell us Todd 'served a dark and vengeful god'. This darkly sinister characterisation contrasts well with the humorous ebullience provided by Imelda Staunton's Nellie Lovett. The audience warmed to her almost from the first moment she appeared from behind the counter of her pie shop, and from that moment on, she had won their hearts and deservedly so.
I have enjoyed many of Mr Sondheim's musicals but this seems to me to be his masterpiece, if that is an apt term to use for a work from a master of the musical genre. The music is breathtaking with truly haunting melodies that send shivers down your spine and instantly bring up goose pimples. Though many us judge the quality of a musical by the humability of the songs, 'Sweeney Todd' cannot actually be judged on that basis quite so easily. Though some of the numbers - Pretty Women, for example -are magically melodic, the music in general is intellectually complex but nonetheless easy enough to appreciate.
With a plot based on a barber who butchers his customers by slitting their throats, it would be unusual indeed if there was no fake blood in evidence. So, if you're the queasy type, you may be having second thoughts about seeing this show. However, I dion't think you need be too concerned because, though the blood does spurt from the barber's victims with some regularity, it is certainly not done to gratuitous excess. If you can overcome any reticence in that department, you have a unique treat in store, because this is a mesmerising production of one of the truly great musicals of all time. And if that sounds like fawning excess, you needn't take my word for it - at the end, there was one of those rare instant standing ovations which tells you everything you really need to know about the quality of this show.
"Jonathan Kent's production, which has now transferred from Chichester, and which leaves me grasping for superlatives, has given the piece a fresh look without destroying its essential fabric."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Sondheim’s rich, pungent musical with glee, relishing its excesses yet still savouring its delicacy. It’s a dark, glinting treat."
Sarah Hemming for the Financial Times
"It is dark, nightmarish and thrilling, and packed with tremendous numbers, from the comic to the cruel (often simultaneously) and from the tender to the terrifying. Watching it, you have no doubt that this is masterpiece of nervous laughter and sudden jolting shocks."
Charles Spencer for the Daily Telegraph