Review: Sweeney Todd – Festival Theatre, Chichester

Beware the quiet ones. The most chilling and dark murderers tend to be those you would never suspect and, in Jonathan Kent’s sublime revival of Sondheim’s Gothic opera, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber journeys from the everyday to maniacal with alarming quiet.

Sondheim’s darkest musical takes a look at a wronged barber who quietly plots revenge on corrupt Judge Turpin for the loss of his family and as a by-product manages to supply his landlady, Mrs Lovett, with a plentiful supply of fresh, if somewhat unorthodox, meat for her ailing pie shop.

This is a Sweeney who lets revenge bubble and simmer just below the surface until his desire for revenge and retribution results in a feast of blood letting and gore. Cool calm and calculating, Sweeney seems to the outside world the model businessman but inside the rage is burning.

Alongside the anger there are also raging passions. Todd still passionately in love with his lost wife and daughter, and Mrs Lovett is willing to go along with the most heinous of crimes just to be close to the man for whom she bears unrequited love.

Kent’s suitable shadowy monochrome production lifts the piece from its traditional Victorian setting to the 1930s. It is a transposition not fully free from problems with some anachronistic references but it does add an air of timeless quality to the piece, moving away from melodrama to a contemporary, if chilling, realism.

Anthony Ward’s slick industrial staging adds a sense of decay to the piece, while Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction draws out both the grand operatic and intimate.

Michael Ball in the title role proves to be a revelation; virtually unrecognisable and at a polar opposite of the more loveable roles he normally plays, Ball delivers a performance of chilling intensity, a brooding presence that shifts from the almost whisper to the operatic. There is malevolence in his eye but also a sparkle of fun and charm that engenders trust in his victims and makes this coiled spring a danger that could explode at any moment. It is a hypnotic performance that commands the stage.

There is also a delightful return to her musical theatre roots by Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, commanding the audience from her initial entrance and proud proclamation of selling ‘The worst pies in London’. Staunton’s comic pedigree is in no doubt, relishing the gore with unashamed glee but here is a women driven by her passions, barely repressing her infatuation with Todd and an inner yearning to be loved. There’s also a sense of poignancy and despair here, a loneliness that drives her to seek escape in any form. Here is a woman who has an abundance of love to share, an outlet that when it finds no response from Todd diverts itself towards an adoptive son, Toby (an impressive James McConville)

It would be easy for these towering performances to overwhelm a production, but the grandness of scale allows plenty of space for the supporting ensemble. There are strong performances from Luke Brady as Anthony and Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford but John Bowe’s Judge Turpin and Lucy May Barker’s Johanna seem oddly undersung.

Although close, this isn’t quite a faultless production. Jonathan Kent’s direction never gets to grips with the Chichester thrust stage, resulting many in the side seats looking at the back of the actors for most of the show. Given the pedigree of the show, one suspects this has been designed with a London transfer in mind, and it will be a worthy addition to the London stage; it is just a shame that the blocking has been compromised for its current location.

Despite the niggles this remains a dark, chilling and soaring Sweeney Todd and a reaffirmation of the power of this dark gothic opera.

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