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A CurtainUp London Review
by Sebastian King
Freshly returned to London from exile in Australia, the barber Benjamin Barker – now renamed Sweeney Todd (Michael Ball) – returns to his barber shop in Fleet Street in search of his wife, and hungry for revenge on Judge Turpin (John Bowe) who had sent him there. Once there, he is immediately recognised by his former neighbour, pie-maker Mrs Lovett (Imelda Staunton), who informs him that his wife has died as a result of the rape and humiliation she suffered at the hands of the Judge. When rival barber Pirelli (Robert Burt) threatens to blackmail him, Todd lashes out and Mrs Lovett devises a cunning way of disposing of his body, which simultaneously solves her shortage of meat to fill her pies.
Kent’s production transplants the action from the streets of Victorian London to a 1930s factory, strikingly realised by Anthony Ward’s industrial set, and Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting that casts atmospheric shafts, shadows and silhouettes across the stage. Surprisingly this updating doesn’t jar, and in fact adds to the air of unease and paranoia that pervades the piece. Kent’s direction is inventive and punchy, although at times unbalanced: why, for example, does so much of the action take place stage right?
As the eponymous barber, Ball is in fine voice. H gives one of the performances of his career, endowing Todd with an equal balance of malice and hurt. In the opening number, he is also given what is perhaps one of the most thrilling entrances ever seen on a West End stage. However, in his pairing with Imelda Staunton, Ball finds himself frequently thrust into the background by her tour de force performance as Todd’s co-conspirator Mrs Lovett. Staunton is the queen of understated humour, and her perfectly nuanced performance quite rightly brings the house down, without sacrificing the character’s lonely vulnerability.
There is solid support from musical theatre stalwarts John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou as the repellent Judge and his reptilian sidekick Beadle Bamford, and Robert Burt brings humour and a touch of the Go Compare advert to Pirelli. As Todd’s daughter Johanna, Lucy May Barker is radiant and hits the high notes with a refreshingly clear tone, and Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Beggar Woman is a vulgar delight. Frequent theatregoers will also spot many familiar faces amongst the large ensemble too, although many of them are sadly underused.
With plenty of blood and gore, this production doesn’t shy away from the dark side, but it remains - at its heart - a crowd pleaser, largely thanks to the performances of its two leads. With rumours of a Broadway transfer on the cards when it finishes its limited engagement at the Adelphi in September, don’t miss this opportunity to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
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