Cast aside any preconceptions of musicals (and Michael Ball) that you might have. Director Jonathan Kent’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeously grisly musical – based on the 1973 play, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Christopher Bond – is a million miles away from the bubblegum musicals that permeate the rest of the West End.
Sweeney Todd tells the story of an escaped convict who returns to London to avenge the judge who wrongly imprisoned him, raped his wife and adopted his daughter.
Michael Ball is superb as the sinister Sweeney (the antithesis of the ebullient Mrs Turnblad he played in Hairspray), who loses his moral compass. With his beard and side parted hair, the housewives’ favourite is almost unrecognisable in his role as the brooding barber who develops a penchant for slitting throats: expect to see blood squirting all over Anthony Ward’s atmospheric set.
Yet while the production is dark and downright terrifying at times, there are plenty of comedic moments too – the lion’s share of which are supplied by Imelda Staunton as the energetic Mrs Lovett. Indeed Staunton almost succeeds in stealing the show as the slatternly Fleet Street pie shop owner, whose business takes off when she starts serving “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top” and who longs to be loved by Ball’s psychopathic Sweeney.
It’s the musical banter between Ball and Staunton that make this musical razor sharp, but there’s excellent support from Luke Brady as the sailor, James McConville as Toby, John Bowe as Judge Turpin, Robert Burt as rival barber, Pirelli, and the ensemble as a whole who lurk on the murky stairways like rats, commentating on the centre stage action.
Some critics have questioned the decision to update Sondheim’s dark masterpiece (which Sondheim specifically set in the Victorian era) to the 1930s. However I found it highly symbolic, showing that inequality and injustice remain just as prevalent in the city today.
What is not in question is Sondheim’s soaring score: songs such as Pretty Women and Not While I’m Around manage to be witty, haunting, poignant and touching by turns. The rousing standing ovation from the audience at the end of the evening, said it all: this is the must see musical of the year, if not the decade.
Sweeney Todd is at the Aldelphi, WC2, until Sept 22. To book tickets, call the box office on 0844 8110053