From the heap of slain corpses deep in the cellar of a pie shop, Jonathan Kent breathes fresh life into the latest production of this timeless classic, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
The narrative has been relocated from the Victorian epoch to the 1930s and the production's transferral from Chichester to the Adelphi theatre on the Strand positions it a mere two or three hundred years from the infamous Fleet Street where the legendary demon barber carried out his gruesome acts. This is just the beginning of its vivid realist touch.
In framing the action inside the borders of a derelict factory, Kent enfranchises the traditionally neglected urban poor whilst making a scathing social critique; London is figured as an enduring bastion of misery and strife for its proletariat dwellers. "The history of the world", Todd sings wonderfully, "is those below serving those up above!"
To accentuate the point, the workers are tasked with the chorus and in ones or twos remain on set throughout the play in the margins, elevated and completely motionless, like the ghosts of the characters of the original Victorian setting - frozen in time and social circumstance.
For the audience, however, sitting motionless was not an option: they were taken through a range of emotions as the scenes turned from comedy, to excitement, to gore - and often all three at once.
The casting was superb. With his slender, one-sided forelock and his ashen face starkly punctuated by his dark, fixated eyes, the brooding Michael Ball was absolutely fascinating, if barely recognisable, as the eponymous antihero. Yet if his demeanour was pallid, his musical performance was anything but; Ball was even less recognisable theatrically than he was physically. Little wonder that even the Daily Mail failed to grasp a hyperbole when it described the show as "the performance of his life".
Imelda Staunton, too, as Mrs Lovett was at her absolute best and a sideways glance at her repertoire of rave reviews is enough to inform one that that is an impressive zenith. She controlled the audience's emotions, triggering humour at will, in the way a conductor controls his orchestra, and continuously left them more ravenous than a cannibal customer waiting for one of her human pies. What seems to go eerily unnoticed throughout the play is that Lovett is the real villain of the piece - she is more Machiavellian in her scheming from start to finish and less just in her motivation. Unlike Sweeney, she is not trying to avenge wrongful incarceration and the destruction of her family, but instead trying to profit - financially and emotionally - from another man's tragedy. "Business needs a lift; think of it as thrift", she appeals to the by now more deranged and less rational Sweeney.
The exceptional synergy of Sweeney and Lovett was supported ably by the rest of the cast, particularly the great interplay in the quartet of Judge Turpin (John Bowe), Beadle (Peter Polycarpou), Anthony (Luke Brady) and Joanna (Lucy May). The romantic plot of the latter two is given a fairytale gloss, with Joanna appearing reminiscent of Rapunzel as she looks down on her saviour with her wavy locks through the window of her chamber, where she is kept.
In often having one number begin as the preceding one was ending, the director ensures not only a seamless transition between scenes, but also subtly interlocks narratives.
On the negative side, perhaps the social critique is paradoxically made more pronounced and ironically undercut by the cost of the show's tickets, with prices ranging up to nearly £100. And the first interval is marginally less exceptional than the second, which homes Ball's brilliant rendition of 'Joanna'. 'Epiphany' and 'My Friends' were the other standout songs, as well as the more tender moment of Staunton singing 'By the Sea'.
In sum it is an excellent revival of an enduring masterpiece and the best piece of theatre I have witnessed for a long while. If one can, one should certainly attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
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