No wonder Stephen Sondheim adores London; we have handed him the keys to the kingdom. There have been multiple stagings of virtually every one of his musicals, and he was honored with an 80th birthday celebration at the Albert Hall and then presented with a special Olivier Award for his lifetime contribution to London’s theatre.
Sam Mendes chose Assassins as the inaugural production at the Donmar Warehouse, where an award-winning staging of Merrily We Roll Along brought that Broadway flop back from the edge of extinction. The best-ever Sunday in the Park with George transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End and then to New York, and the adventuresome Chocolate Factory even gave Sondheim’s troubled Bounce – now called Road Show – an outing.
As far back as 1976, London saw Side by Side by Sondheim, a revue compilation performed by a cast of three. There have been four London stagings of Into the Woods and an equal number of Follies, including an amazing version in the minuscule Landor Theatre (above a pub and performed for an audience of only 52) as well as a spectacularly extravagant staging starring Diana Rigg and Julia McKenzie.
Sweeney Todd has also graced London stages on numerous occasions, not least in a National Theatre production. Now we have this stupendous rendition, first seen at the Chichester Festival last September. Of course this is an outrageous, aggressive, even ludicrous bit of idiocy – a grand Guignol fantasy of horror where murder victims end up cannibalized as delicious meat pies. What makes it so impressive is the way in which Sondheim and writer Hugh Wheeler turn the tables on us, lure us in, make us actually care about these garish cardboard cutouts.
Michael Ball plays Sweeney, the demon barber of Fleet Street. He is paired with Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime. She revels in the sight gags and glories in the puns, but is a million miles away from the saucer-eyed kewpie doll that Angela Lansbury conjured up in the original 1979 Broadway production. Instead, Staunton is venal through and through, conniving and cold-blooded, as dangerous as she is funny. Sweeney’s equal in horror, she is even more immoral and distinctly more opportunistic.
There was a bit of newspaper gossip during the Chichester run that claimed some women were asking for their money back because Ball hadn’t been performing. At first I assumed this was just a publicity stunt. But, not so. If all you knew of Ball was his dimpled sunshine personality topped by that cherub’s mop of curls, then you too might have mistaken his bull-chested, lank-haired Sweeney for someone else.
This truly is a transformative performance, something most theatregoers would have thought beyond his reach. After all, we know him as the ardent young officer in Sondheim’s Passion, for the sprightly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and as the robustly joyous Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. I can’t remember ever seeing a performance that so rewrites an actor’s personal history. The pivotal moment when Sweeney is transmogrified from a wronged man seeking vengeance into a psychopathic mass murderer is a shudderingly gruesome epiphany.
Together – and they are indeed a perfectly balanced duo – Ball and Staunton exhibit the sort of authentic star power that goes down in history.
Jonathan Kent directs with a no-holds-barred intensity that never skimps on the comedy but pushes the darkness to incredible depths. In conjunction with designer Anthony Ward, he has shifted the period from Victorian London to the Great Depression, and then set the whole thing in an asylum where the inmates act out Sweeney’s tale as if it were some macabre Christmas pageant.
No vocal coach is credited in the program, but everyone in this large cast must be congratulated on the clarity and diction of the lyrics. The production, conducted by Nicholas Skilbeck, has already been recorded. Listen to it and you’ll immediately hear what I mean. Time to make room for Staunton and Ball on your Ten Best list.