Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sweeney Todd

I saw the original 1980 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. At the time, the critics damned his new musical with faint praise. They admired its cleverness but questioned its emotional detachment. A musical about revenge, serial killing and cannibalism was too much for a West End audience to stomach and it soon closed.

I have never been a great fan of musical theatre (too camp, too trite and too obvious for my tastes) but as a fourteen year old I was mesmerised by the musical ambition and lyrical wit of Sweeney Todd. Sitting in the gods at Drury Lane, watching Hal Prince's spectacular production, has become one of the defining moments of my theatre going life. I fell in love with the musical and, over time, I have become a devoted fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim.

Over the years I have seen countless productions of Sweeney Todd – including the famous 1993 National Theatre production, an Opera North production and a promenade performance with the opera singer, Bryn Terfel, singing the part of Sweeney. Tim Burton’s film version – though visually exciting – was, to my mind, a disappointment. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter had neither the musical or emotional range to make the relationship between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett convincing.

Why has this musical (unlike any other) captured my imagination? I think it is the completeness of Sondheim’s musical venture and the lyrical perversities that continue to excite and startle. For example, what other musical would use a love song (“Pretty Women”) as throats are being slashed by a sociopath? Sondheim allows beauty and horror to cohabit in the same melodious, orchestrated line. Dissonant key-changes create an atmosphere of menace and even the lyrical sensuality of some of his orchestration acquires an erotic ambivalence. At every point, the audience is musically wrong footed and kept in a state of permanent suspense.

Sondheim’s lyrics straddle grand guignol melodrama and farce with a contortionist’s ease: “For what’s the sound of the world out there?/Those crunching noises pervading the air?/ it’s man devouring man, my dear,/ and who are we to deny it in here? ” Though set in Victorian England, Sondheim’s musical feels as contemporary and disturbing as American Psycho or We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Jonathan Kent’s new production of Sweeney Todd has just transferred to London and stars Michael Ball and Imelda Stauton. It is one of the darkest and most theatrically convincing productions of Sweeney Todd I have seen. The gothic visuals of Hammer House of Horror movies viewed through the lens of the Communist Manifesto. It's scary and thought provoking.

Michael Ball, every housewife’s Radio 2 crumpet, is unrecognisable. He has transformed himself into an obsessive, vengeful force who satiates his hatred by murdering the innocent. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Lovett is a master class in comic timing while conveying the unique pain of unrequited love.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street raises his razor again at the Adelphi Theatre. Kill for a ticket.

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