Stephen Sondheim's bloody musical is a tremendous climax to this year's Chichester Festival. Jonathan Kent's powerful production brings out the essential melodrama of the piece without losing some of the almost-Brechtian moralistic elements.
He does make one decision that looks rather odd. The Victorian grand guignol has been updated to a more modern-looking London. It looks strange because the references to transportation and the beadle sit rather uneasily with Mrs Lovett’s neon-lit diner.
I can only assume that Kent wanted to show that the desire for revenge, corrupt judges and human brutality will always be with us but it’s a move that doesn’t really enhance the piece. Despite the incongruities, however, Anthony Ward's design, with the orchestra placed behind an array of broken windows behind a steel walkway, adds to the air of menace.
The main interest was always going to be the Chichester debuts of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. Ball, looking disconcertingly like Ricky Gervais, is a brooding, saturnine presence and gives a compelling portrait of a man driven insane by thoughts of revenge. I’m not sure that his voice quite generates the right amount of malevolence but he certainly is a menacing presence.
But it's Staunton's performance that is the true highlight of the evening. She wrings every ounce of humour from the rapacious Mrs Lovett, switching nimbly from the grotesque coquette to the bloodthirsty businesswoman dreaming of building her fortune on human flesh. Her duet with Ball on "A Little Priest" is the show’s highlight, drawing on Sondheim’s witty rhyming and Staunton’s relish for her business plan.