Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre
The King Lear of musical theatre. Without Cordelia.
Melodrama is not something we accept easily these days, tittering gently as the gore runs, moving restlessly in our seats as heroes or villains declaim to the gallery. So all the more odd, on the surface, that Sweeney Todd is the most popular of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. On the surface. Because, under the melodramatic posturing, Sondheim creates a cold, hard, bleak world.
So not a barrel of laughs, right? Well, no, not right either, for Sweeney Todd is Sondheim at his fastest, his most ferocious, and his funniest. The melodrama of the returned convict Sweeney Todd (Michael Ball) cutting a swathe (literally) through society in a search for vengeance is offset, and enhanced, by his besotted but pragmatic partner Mrs Lovett (Imelda Staunton), who happily bakes his leavings into pies. The mad barber roars that he will be revenged, she checks that he has enough cash to get by: they are a team because they are emotionally deaf to each other.
Mark Henderson’s genius smoky lighting fixes and focuses our attention as the action dots and darts about Anthony Ward’s splendidly grim industrial set, which gestures towards, perhaps, a semi-derelict warehouse, while his 1930s costumes update the original Victorian Sweeney to a Depression-era world, making sense of Mrs Lovett’s poverty, and the many drifting men who, unremarked, go missing after visiting the “tonsorial parlour”. Director Jonathan Kent keeps the complex action moving elegantly across the stage, using all three levels of Ward’s set to good effect as he marks out Sondheim’s shifting rhythms.
But ultimately, any Sweeney boils down to its leads. Michael Ball (pictured above right) has performed in Sondheim pieces before, most notably in Passion, that curiously film noir-ish hyper-drama. Sweeney is, however, a different kettle of mayhem. In Passion the hero is acted upon, pushed around by a psychopath until he succumbs. In Sweeney, Sweeney is himself the psychopath, the actor, not the acted-upon. And Ball, while he does well enough, is ultimately just not big enough – not big enough psychologically, or of voice, or of sheer physical presence. (He also, for reasons I cannot fathom, sings “American” – his speaking voice is pure Brit, but he drops into transatlantic-ese the minute the music begins.)
Share this article
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Enjoyable drama about Ireland's renewed emigration
Pints of blood but no real tragedy in this season opener
Ray Davies's Kinks saga has heart and soul as well as musical brawn
As Rattigan's debut is staged after 80 years, its director ponders the rise of the rediscovery
Heartbreaking Ibsen adaptation mixes naturalism and forensic examination
Tony-winning Broadway export is well-sung but unoriginal
The desperate fate of addicts and outcasts is given bracingly humorous treatment
The moment when theatre was transformed by visionary Russian directors
Like its marooned middle-managers, Tim Firth's comedy loses its way
Kander & Ebb's startling, stirring musical gets a West End upgrade
The delightfully shambolic talent show that's become a national treasure
A key moment in American race relations inspires a richly ambitious new drama