What a sensational night at the theatre. Sondheim’s masterwork can scarcely have had a better outing since Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou.
The production moved seamlessly and smoothly through the many shifting locations, with lighting always finely judged: the oven and the meat grinder brooded in the shadows, Mrs Lovett’s parlour was suffused with dim warmth and her newly-busy pie shop was lit so as to bring the bustling details to life. Cages and doors swung open and clanged shut across the back of the curved set, and the pie-shop-cum-tonsorial-parlour swung on and turned gently to throw up shifting perspectives and views, all adding slightly to the tension. People came out on to the galleries high up on the set to comment on the action (as the chorus), just to watch, or for some of the principals’ perambulations. Jonathan Kent has done the work proud, his opera experience perhaps contributing to skilful handling of many characters, chorus, and fast changing scenes.
I can’t claim to have been a fan of Michael Ball. I have hitherto found his bright, perky, morning-television-sofa, cheek-chappie demeanour a little trying. As I said in the interval, words I never thought I’d utter: “Michael Ball is sensational.” He is unrecognisable, and presents a Sweeney Todd that is more than the brooding, glowering man full of resentments that often comes across. The accent he adopts lifts his voice slightly from the darker bass-baritone ranges in which the character is usually found, and it works to bring the character out of the shadows and into the foreground, making him more engaged, more of a driver of the action than a victim of circumstances. Ball’s voice still has the soft-grained tone to carry off the more lyrical numbers, such as Pretty Women, but he as equally able to hurl out danger in the Epiphany. Fantastic stuff.
That would have been as nought were it not for a good leading lady to play off. So often it is difficult to see Mrs Lovett without shades of Angela Lansbury in the background, but Imelda Staunton seems to have reinvented the character anew. All pacing of songs and dialogue seems to have been rethought from scratch and integrated into her characterisation, to fascinating effect: hilarious and moving by turns. Interestingly, I thought the two obviously ‘big’ numbers – A Little Priest and The Worst Pies in London – came some way behind her performance in By the Sea and the Nothing’s Gonna Harm You duet scene with Tobias. That’s not to say the big scenes weren’t first rate, but the difference she made to those latter numbers with her detailed, though not over-fussy, characterisation was stunning. Her blind and desperate love for Todd, driving the intensity of her reaction to Tobias’s warnings as well as the increasing panic in the final scene, was brilliantly conveyed. I shall remember it for a long time…
Around this pair swirl a number of other characters, outstanding amongst which were the richly sinister Judge Turpin of John Bowe and a pleasingly straightforward bully-boy Beadle Bamford of Peter Polycarpou. Gillian Kirkpatrick made The Old Woman more than usually vivid, and conjured up sympathy for the character long before it is usually forced into view. Tobias’s naïveté was nicely played by James McConville, with flashes of steel combining with simple affection in his duet with Mrs Lovett. The piece doesn’t give much for the two lovers to really shine at, and Luke Brady as Anthony and Lucy May Barker as Johanna despatched the roles competently but without really bringing anything new to bear: he was a little too ‘music theatre’ about it (all big hand gestures and energetic smiles), she deployed a slightly thin soprano in a way that wasn’t flattered by the microphones, but all-in-all they certainly didn’t let the side down. As Pirelli, Robert Burt delivered the part with all due camp and showmanship, a part I’ve always assumed was modelled on Dr Dulcamara from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, but maybe those similarities are superficial.
The orchestra, amplified up from the pit, played with precision, energy and colour, giving the score its central role in driving the drama. The mic’ing of the voices brought as many problems as it probably solved, as ever: the main principals were, broadly, quite clear, whilst choruses were slightly muddied. It is probably a fallacy to assume one should hear every word of a complex Sondheim libretto just as you wouldn’t expect to hear every word of a Rossini ensemble.
But, overall, what an evening! It runs to 22 September 2012… get moving.