Stage review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi
IN A NUTSHELL
Blood flows, stomachs churn but hearts swell in this intelligent, witty, gripping and grim musical.
Darkness swamps old London town. Darkness shades the characters and shapes the humour too in Stephen Sondheim's dextrous re-telling of the tale of the blood-thirsty barber and his pie-making pal.
Director Jonathan Kent is equally dextrous in his staging of this marvellous musical - putting the grisly crime scenes up high and the lives down low.
The setting is like an abandoned East End warehouse and the light arrives sliced and diced by thick lattices and the swirl of fog never truly clears, either from the stage or the gin-addled assembly.
But this is not the old London town of Fagin, nor even Sondheim's setting of 1849. The London of the beadle and Bedlam is, curiously, the 1930s but this temporal dissonance is only marginally irritating and does not deflect from the hellish vision plumped on the sombre Adelphi stage.
Michael Ball is sombre too. He is a creature of twisted hatreds. Gone is the Sunday teatime beaming cherub to be replaced with a charcoal black gnarled gargoyle, satanic in appearance and intent.
Barber Todd is back from the colonies, dispatched there by the evil Judge Turpin who had his lascivious eye on Todd's daughter Joanna.
Now Joanna is full grown but still a bird in a cage and Todd wants reunion and revenge, although not necessarily in that order.
Chicken-fleshed John Bowe plays the flagellating judge who wants to turn ward into wife, bellowing his self-serving justifications while his sidekick Beadle (Peter Polycarpou) wheedles.
As Todd waits for his trap to close he practises his cut-throat technique on random strangers, at one point singing a jaunty love song as he slices. Blood spurts and dribbles reminding us that, at heart, this is a gory and stomach-churning piece.
What the music lacks in melody it remakes with melodrama. Refrains may be brutal but some of the dark lyrics are rich with clever comedy and an absolute feast of wit and wordplay.
Star of the show is Imelda Staunton who takes full advantage of the pie-based puns. Her magnificent creation of Mrs Lovett is touching, tender, brutal, murderous. She is wicked and wickedly funny turning customers into pies and pies into profit.
She manages to convey - in short stabs of dialogue - devotion, comedy, variation and a wonderful glint of demonic energy.
Although the score lacks a rousing climax and the story - like Todd's customers - sputters somewhat to its end, the rich concoction - and Staunton's breathtaking turn - brought the crowd to its feet knowing they are in the presence of a masterpiece fully realised.
Until September 22, adelphitheatrelondon.com