Back in October 2011 I reviewed Chichester Festival Theatre’s sell out production of Sweeney Todd. It was clear then that this show was destined for a life beyond its Sussex run; the star casting of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton just one clue to its future potential.
As widely predicted the show has now landed in the West End, opening at the Aldephi Theatre for a limited season.
Has the journey worked? Yes and no. It is still early days in the run and official press night is not until 20th March (although producers are charging full price from day one) and so the usual caveats apply.
Back in October my review heaped praise on Ball and Staunton’s performances and they still impress. If anything Staunton’s Mrs Lovett has developed even more since Chichester, an absolutely gripping performance full of subtle nuances, coupled with broad humour when required. The comic timing is still spot-on, the singing full of yearning passion and there’s a steely determination under that little frail woman act. If Staunton doesn’t walk away with every best actress in a musical award in 2012 it will be a crime to rival Sweeney’s multiple murders.
Ball on the other hand has somewhat softened his Todd. Chichester saw a chilling intensity and brooding menace and, while vocally Ball still soars, some of the malevolence seems to have dissipated in the larger theatre.
This distance between performer and audience has had the biggest impact of the move. While Chichester suffered problems with blocking not taking into account the thrust staging, the Adelphi’s cavernous three level auditorium puts many viewers at a greater distance from the stage and the resulting lack of intimacy does hamper. With its shadowy lighting and many scenes played at the rear of the stage, it is often difficult to see performers faces clearly.
The design does also cause problems, with performers on multiple levels causing sight line issues from some parts of the auditorium. Even top price seating now seems somewhat remote from the action, and while Anthony Ward’s grimy monochrome industrial setting fills the stage, Jonathan Kent’s blocking still has issues, even on a proscenium stage.
This is still early days in the run and some of these technical issues can easily be resolved. It remains a chilling dark Sweeney Todd, sung with gusto and conviction. With its casting it would always need a large theatre but perhaps that success is also its Achilles heel, losing some of the intimacy. Something for the producers to chew over.