Cover feature: Bloody good show
Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton star in Chichester Festival Theatre’smuch anticipated production of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd, writes Andrew Kay
In 50 years of theatre going I was never more spellbound than at the first night of the West End opening of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. From the very first screeching whistle to the final slamming of a door in a wall of corrugated iron, the entire audience were rapt. We all knew that we had just experienced a landmark piece of theatre.
Tony award-winning Stephen Sondheim was already the toast of musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, but with Sweeney Todd he hit a high that would broaden his appeal and confirm his place as king of the genre.
But what is that genre? Is Sweeney Todd a musical, is it an opera or simply a play with music and songs? The truth is that it matters little; above all this is a piece of theatre that will have audiences on the edge of their seats.
Sondheim took the dark London legend of Todd and, using Christopher Bond’s play, created a musical that owes more to grand guignol than it does to Hello! Dolly. Hugh Wheeler wrote the book for the new work but it is in Sondheim’s genius for lyrics that the balance is held. And balance is what makes the piece work.
The story is well enough known: Todd has been deported on a trumped up charge, his wife abused by the judge, who then takes their daughter into his custody. When Todd returns he is bitter and vengeful. He meets Mrs Lovett, a pie maker, and they form an unholy alliance, he dispatching the residents of Fleet Street with his razor and she baking them in pies. Darker than dark, it begs the question, what ever made him think it would be suitable fare for musical entertainment?
Sondheim pulls it off of course with his ‘usual flair’, the dark moments could not be darker but they are balanced by moments of pure poetry, love songs, odes to pretty women and affecting ballads of real quality.
It also has humour – and lots of it. The marvellous scene in which Todd challenges a mountebank barber is breathtaking in its complexity and lyrical density, his tongue twisting words a test for the most talented performer. But the comic highlight of the entire work is also its darkest moment as Todd and Lovett duet in ‘A little Priest’, a song that sees Sondheim at his most brilliant, and whilst we laugh the grim reality of what they are plotting dawns on us.
Few would dispute that Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s masterpiece and it is perfect timing that Chichester Festival Theatre should choose to stage it right now. For the last few years they have proved that when it comes to musical theatre they are second to none with a string of recent productions heading straight for the West End. This year, Singing In The Rain is already heading into London.
Any Sondheim will require performers of great talent and Chichester has pulled together a cast to impress. Taking the lead is Michael Ball. Ball has been a West End and international star since he first went into the West End. His shows have included Hairspray, Les Misérables, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Passion, Aspects of Love, The Woman in White and The Phantom of the Opera. He has already worked with Sondheim but this role has been a long held ambition and one that he now feels he is ready to play.
Joining him as Mrs Lovett is Imelda Staunton. Her theatre credits include A Delicate Balance at the Almeida Theatre, the West End production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, Life x 3 (National Theatre and The Old Vic) and Guys and Dolls (National Theatre). Film credits include the Harry Potter series, Taking Woodstock, and the title role in Vera Drake, for which she received BAFTA, European Film, and Venice Film Festival Awards, as well as an Oscar nomination.
They are also joined by Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford. Polycarpou may have been best known for his role in Birds Of A Feather but his acting career has seen him in many musical roles including Chichester Festival Theatre’s Love Story, which later transferred to the West End. His other credits include the West End productions of Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and The Secret Garden and Oklahoma! for the National Theatre.
If I was excited by the first night all those years ago at Drury Lane, I am far more excited now to see what director Jonathan Kent, designer Anthony Ward, and the brilliant team at Chichester Festival Theatre will make of what has to be one of the most engaging, exciting and perhaps groundbreaking pieces of musical theatre ever written.
Sweeney Todd plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 November 2011,
various show times. Tickets £14–£38, call 01243 781312 or visit cft.org.uk