I’m a little suspicious of standing ovations at the theatre, particularly at big, expensive musicals. I’ve sometimes come away with a sneaking suspicion that there has been something a little mechanical about the way an audience has leapt to its feet during the curtain call, that standing to applaud becomes a way of justifying the expenditure on an expensive ticket, even if what you’ve just seen hasn’t been particularly good. It feels a little silly, particularly if just a few clumps of people stand while everyone else remains seated. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who stays sitting down if I don’t feel that what I’ve just seen is worth any kind of special gesture; to me, a standing ovation is something that’s reserved for when what you’ve just seen is so good, so extraordinary, that ordinary applause isn’t enough. Shows like that, unfortunately, don’t come around very often.
I say this now because I saw Saturday’s matinée of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre, and I haven’t seen a standing ovation like the one that happened at the curtain call in a very, very long time. This wasn’t just a few isolated groups of people half-heartedly standing because that’s just what you do; the entire audience stood, as far as I could see – yes, me too – and not only did they stand and applaud, they cheered, and pretty much everyone was standing and cheering before Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, the production’s above-the-title stars, came out to take their bows. Their applause could have been measured using the Richter scale, and both they and the production deserved it. I’ve already gushed over one musical revival this week, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to gush over another.
There’s a sound you don’t hear very often when you’re in a large theatre watching a big musical: silence. Audiences these days are often not particularly attentive. They fidget, whisper, rattle sweet wrappers, eat, play around with cellphones. There was none of that here. When everyone in an audience is completely caught up in what’s happening on stage, something magical happens. You can feel it in this production when the music cuts out and there’s a pause – it’s as if the entire audience is collectively holding their breath. Jonathan Kent, this revival’s director, has achieved something remarkable. He’s taken a show that, yes, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, that any musical theatre geek over the age of thirty will have seen at least half-a-dozen times, whose original Broadway production, in its touring incarnation, was preserved on DVD, and that has been revived in London three times within the past twelve years, and he’s delivered a production that quietly, without grandstanding, makes you see every second of a very, very familiar piece of material as if it were completely fresh.
The first clue that this is not a standard-issue Sweeney Todd is Anthony Ward’s set. Like Harold Prince’s original Broadway (and London) production, the show is set in industrial London, but here we’re in the 1930s rather than the mid-nineteenth century. The show takes place in a vast, run-down, semicircular metal-framed workhouse, with dizzyingly steep staircases that lead to a vertiginous catwalk that circles the top of the stage. The costumes, with a couple of exceptions, are everyday period street clothes, Mark Henderson’s lighting is shadowy and sinister, and aside from a couple of visual flourishes – Pirelli’s market stall is a Piaggio three-wheeler van, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has a neon sign in the second act, and Todd’s shiny new Act Two barber’s chair is upholstered in red leatherette – the look is depression-era drab. There’s a pre-show sequence in which the ensemble are onstage working – scrubbing the floor, moving sacks, doing something you can’t quite see with metal bars behind the upper-level window-frames – which leads to Kent’s first directorial masterstroke: when the show begins, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ is presented as the inmates/workers in this workhouse/factory/whatever it is telling each other the story of Sweeney Todd, for their own amusement. I’ve never seen it staged quite that way before, and it makes rather more dramatic sense than an ensemble of actors somewhat portentously directing the song at the audience. This refocused opening grabs your attention, and Kent and his cast run with it. This Sweeney Todd, more than any other I’ve seen, is a thrilling, chilling roller-coaster ride on which the tension never lets up, even for a moment.
Part of what’s startling about this production’s opening sequence, I have to say, is the presence on stage of a large cast. The original production, by all accounts, was immense, but it’s a show that can be done small, and often is; of the previous productions I’ve seen, I think the largest used 16 actors and the smallest just 11. Here, there are 26, along with a band of 15 in the pit (the very assured musical direction is by Nicholas Skilbeck), which means that none of the actors have to play the trumpet when they’re not in a scene. The ensemble performances are terrific; each member of this cast has clearly done a great deal of detailed character work, the ensemble singing is very, very strong indeed, and they sock ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ across the footlights with a grim, sardonic intensity that catches you slightly by surprise. It’s an opening number that always works, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as it does here.
Good as the opening is, though, it only hints at what to come, because this production’s real thrills begin with the entrance of the two leads. On paper, I have to say, Michael Ball would not have been my first choice for Sweeney Todd. At the start of his career, he was a likeable but rather bland romantic leading man (with, admittedly, a very, very strong voice); he was perfectly OK in The Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love, and Sondheim’s Passion, and he sang all three roles very, very well, but he wasn’t particularly exciting or distinctive, and his concert work, frankly, is the musical equivalent of swimming through a bath of melted processed cheese. He was a major surprise in the British production of Hairspray, in which he was cast way against type as Edna Turnblad (he played the role in London and on tour), but it’s a long way from Edna Turnblad to Sweeney Todd. And yet here he is, nearly unrecognisable in a slicked-back brown wig, staring down the audience and delivering a performance that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not simply that this is the best work of his career so far, although it certainly is: this performance is so far ahead of everything else I’ve ever seen him do – including his Edna Turnblad, which was also spectacularly good – that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I wouldn’t have believed him capable of it. He’s giving as good a leading performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere, in a play or in a musical. He charts Sweeney’s descent into madness deliberately and carefully, so that his ‘Epiphany’ is a genuine explosion; his is a lighter voice than is often cast as Sweeney, and he saves the fireworks for a few key moments, but the power is there, and when he unleashes it, he’s terrifying. There’s far more to this performance than explosive power, though. In some ways, he’s most impressive in his quietest moments. The range of emotions he wrings out of his very low-key delivery of his part of the ‘Johanna’ quartet in Act Two is extraordinary. He’s fierce, brooding, desperately sad, threatening, demented, and a ticking timebomb, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is equally good, and in some ways equally surprising. She’s dabbled in Sondheim before – she was brilliant as the Baker’s Wife in the first London staging of Into the Woods, but her last musical was Guys and Dolls in 1997, and her achievements since have eclipsed her earlier work in musicals to the point where it’s easy to forget that she can sing. Truthfully, better singers than her have played the role – she has a pleasant voice, but she’s no Julia McKenzie – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone find quite the range of colours in it that she does. She’s one of Britain’s best comic actresses, of course, and she nails all of the laughs in the script, with a few on top for good measure – one of her reactions during the Parlour Songs sequence gets a laugh that stops the show cold for a good twenty seconds – but she’s delivering far more than simple comic relief. Beat by beat, syllable by syllable, she presents Mrs. Lovett in extraordinary detail. Her Mrs. Lovett, yes, is a backstreet pragmatist, but she’s also – at least in the later scenes – possibly a psychopath, and sexually aroused not only by Sweeney himself, but by blood and the possibility of violence. When, relatively early in the show, Sweeney sings ‘My Friends’ to his collection of cut-throat razors, she gives off such palpable sexual heat that you half expect her to have to wring out her knickers at the end of the number, and her shrieks of horror when she discovers Pirelli’s body in the trunk very quickly become almost orgasmic. When she watches Sweeney explode into madness in ‘Epiphany’, she’s simultaneously horrified and absolutely thrilled. She’s the true villain of the piece, but she’s garrulous and charming, and her affection for Tobias is totally genuine – the stricken look on her face during the scene surrounding ‘Not While I’m Around’ when she realises she’s going to have to murder him to stop him from exposing the secret behind her pie shop is perhaps the production’s most thoroughly chilling moment. This, too, is as good a performance as I have ever seen anywhere in pushing thirty years of regular theatregoing.
It’s not just that Ball and Staunton are individually great, either – they play off each other beautifully, and their ‘A Little Priest’ is dazzling even if you know all of the groaners in the lyrics off by heart. And they are matched by a very fine set of supporting performances. Nobody in this cast is less than very good; Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford is magnificent. The last twenty minutes of the show are absolutely electrifying, even though a good proportion of the audience must know exactly what is coming next. I said at the beginning that the audience response was like nothing I’ve seen in a long, long time; it was entirely deserved. This is one of those rare theatrical events where you run the risk of running out of superlatives.
And yes, in case you were wondering, there is blood. Quite a lot of blood, in fact – there’s no faking it by bathing the stage in red light here. When a throat gets slit, the blood spurts. And spurts. It’s impressively gory, particularly towards the end of Act Two when the bodies start to pile up – not as gory as the (misguided and ineffective) film, but it’s about fifty times more chilling. Not to mention orders of magnitude funnier – and, unlike the film, the laughs here are all intentional.
Complaints? Only two. One, the production has yielded a cast recording. If it doesn’t quite convey how marvellous the show is in the theatre, it’s still a very worthwhile, hugely entertaining listen, but unfortunately it’s a single-disc highlights set, and this production is so good that a more complete recording would have been nice. Two, the toilets in the Adelphi are awful, and there aren’t enough of them. The queues for both the ladies and the gents at the interval stretched out of the bathrooms like bread queues in Soviet-era Russia, and the three (just three) urinals in the gents are so close together that you touch shoulders with the person next to you as you attempt to go about your business. In this day and age, the facilities are totally inadequate.
So… yes. This is possibly as good a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever hope to see. It’s playing a limited run of six months, and it can’t extend at the Adelphi because the theatre has another booking in the autumn. The reviews have been so strong that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the production subsequently went on to have another life somewhere else, but don’t count on it: if you love musical theatre, and particularly if you love Sondheim, this is something that’s worth making a considerable effort to see. And since I’ve already seen it, you will at least be spared the unfortunate spectacle of me sitting with my mouth hanging open for two hours and fifty minutes.
Just, when you see it, make sure you use the bathroom somewhere else first. Really. You’ll thank me.