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Review Round-up: Ball & Staunton impress with West End Sweeney Todd

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Jonathan Kent's Chichester Festival Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opened last night (20 March, previews from 10 March 2012) at the West End's Adelphi Theatre. The show will play a limited season to 22 September 2012.

Michael Ball stars as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street alongside Imelda Staunton as his pie-making partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, and both are lavished with praise by the critical press who give the acclaimed Chichester production an equally warm welcome to London.

Sweeney Todd also stars Lucy May Barker as Johanna, Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford, John Bowe as Judge Turpin, Luke Brady as Anthony, Gillian Kirkpatrick as the Beggar Woman Robert Burt as Pirelli and James McConville as Tobias.

The show transfers to the Adelphi following a Whatsonstage.com Award-winning run in Chichester in 2011 which earned the show the Best Regional Production gong at this year's Awards.

Michael Coveney

"Sweeney Todd has arrived at the Adelphi trailing clouds of hype and glory, much of it fully deserved. The performances of Michael Ball… and Imelda Staunton… will remain definitive for a very long time. But I do have qualms… about the musical itself … Sondheim says Sweeney is a movie for the theatre, and his invocation of Alfred Hitchcock… is uncannily matched in Ball's slow prowl around the stage … I'm not sure, either, about Anthony Ward's imposing circular set … Otherwise, the technical presentation is perfect … Fairy lights aside, Mark Henderson's use of harsh and murky lighting, with rare pools of warmth, is exceptional … There are very strong support performances from John Bowe as an emphatically perverted, self-flagellating judge and Gillian Kirkpatrick as the harpie-like beggar woman whose proximity to the action catches up with her big time in the Rigoletto-ish final scenes; “I Love Lucy” might be a clue to her relationship with a man called Ball."

Sam Marlowe
Time Out

Michael Ball & Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
"Jonathan Kent's production of Stephen Sondheim's gore-soaked musical is dark and dazzling by turns, and utterly hair-raising … Thanks to the brilliance of Sondheim's score and lyrics, and stunning performances from a cast led by Staunton and an almost unrecognisable Michael Ball as Sweeney, a macabre horror story becomes both diabolically funny and genuinely tragic … As Sondheim's music soars, there's a vocal explosion, as if this Victorian penny dreadful had ignited decades of rage and suffering. Ball's grim, vengeful anti-hero is mesmeric … When Mrs Lovett suggests her queasy get-rich-quick scheme, he flashes a toothy, lupine grin … Staunton is nothing short of astonishing. She's hilariously adept with Sondheim's comic rhymes, and an earthy, gritty-voiced delight as she attempts coquetry with Ball. But she also conveys a devastating loneliness and longing … This is a production crammed with detail, vivid, nightmarish, and exhilarating. Bloody marvellous."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"In this transfer from Chichester Sweeney Todd is staged and sung and acted with verve. Professionalism at every turn. A top band. For all this showmanship, the nastiness overwhelms … I left the Adelphi impressed but sickened. Sweeney Todd is a dark night. Imelda Staunton deploys all her comic talent as Mrs Lovett … Every time her sparrow frame steps on stage, the pace quickens … Michael Ball’s Todd wears a whitened face in his first scene, along with a long lick of straight, black hair … There is, he reasons, nothing unusual about cannibalism. In the modern world do men not effectively consume other men all the time? … John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou do grand turns as a baddie judge and his beadle … A subplot of Johanna (Lucy May Barker) and her wet boy-friend (Luke Brady) barely smoulders. Everything is subservient to the evil of Todd and his glinting razors. Director Jonathan Kent delivers spectacle. The whole thing is done with artistic oompf. But my neighbour, in her late 40s, repeatedly hid behind her hands and children will be given nightmares."

Michael Billington

"Jonathan Kent's production, which has now transferred from Chichester, and which leaves me grasping for superlatives, has given the piece a fresh look without destroying its essential fabric … We now watch as a 20th-century chorus of the working poor retell the legendary fable of the demon barber … But Kent's chief achievement is to heighten the violent shifts of tone in Sondheim's masterly music and lyrics and in Hugh Wheeler's book … The performances are as bold and striking as the concept. Ball presents us with a skilled barber nursing a private grievance … Ball charts every stage of Sweeney's descent … Imelda Staunton, with equal command, plays Mrs Lovett as a pinafored loner … Staunton not only gives the evening its comic counterpoint, but confirms her great gift for discovering the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. Luke Brady as a lyrical sailor, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney's imprisoned daughter, John Bowe as a self-flagellating judge, and Peter Polycarpou as his sadistic henchman are all first rate … This is a superb achievement which proves that Sondheim's musical thriller has genuine social resonance."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"In my view, Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim’s best show and one of the greatest musicals of all time … Most of my colleagues raved about Jonathan Kent’s production when it opened in Chichester last year, but I had reservations that this welcome West End transfer doesn’t entirely allay. It strikes me as downright perverse that this grisly musical melodrama… should have been updated to the 1930s … But that is enough nitpicking. There is far more to commend than to criticise … Michael Ball, best known for cosy campery, is now tremendous in the title role … He has a splendidly brooding stage presence … It is also impossible to praise too highly Imelda Staunton’s performance … Some of the supporting performances could do with more oomph, and Lucy May Baker seems particularly bland and vocally strained as the persecuted heroine … This Sweeney Todd will chiefly be remembered for its stomach-churningly gory razor killings, with blood squirting over the shop, and the thrillingly perverse chemistry between Ball’s terrifying demon barber and Staunton’s deliciously chirpy pie-maker."

Dominic Maxwell
The Times

"From the moment that an industrial whistle blows and the ensemble sings an operatic chorus from high up on Anthony Ward’s metal set, the mood is dark and entrancing … By the time that Ball enters as Sweeney … we’re already halfway to Hell … But the real horror comes from the palpable progress towards damnation as our vengeful hero loses his moral bearings amid slit throats and human pies. Ball is terrific … And Staunton? Startlingly good. She finds something surprising but true in every line as Mrs Lovett … You won’t see a richer performance this year. There is excellent support too, from John Bowe as Judge Turpin, Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford, Lucy May Barker as Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, Luke Brady as the sailor who loves her and James McConville as our antiheroes’ scrawny surrogate son, Tobias. But what really registers is how perfectly Kent controls the tone as we flip between the romantic and the discordant, the horrific and the comical, sometimes within a line. It’s an evening of glorious shades of grey; an absolute bleedin’ triumph."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"If you think you know Michael Ball, think again. The popular lyric baritone is almost unrecognisable as the demon barber of Fleet Street … It’s a chilling performance, sinister and saturnine … He is a revelation as the gory slasher whose desire to avenge a wrongful conviction turns into a crusade … Imelda Staunton is more than the perfect foil. At times, in fact, she threatens to steal the show … She gets some of Sondheim’s best lyrics and brings a busy comic energy to them. All the while she yearns touchingly for the affections of the grimly plotting Sweeney. It’s a rich and layered interpretation. In Jonathan Kent’s operatic production, the black comedy is matched by notes of tragedy … The action isn’t always as suspenseful as it needs to be. There’s too much emphasis on peripheral characters. Yet Sondheim’s varied, complex score is intelligently served … There’s some assured support, chiefly from Robert Burt as rival barber Pirelli and James McConville as Pirelli’s assistant. This is an atmospheric Sweeney Todd, an unsettling musical thriller made razor-sharp by its two superb leads. When Ball and Staunton aren’t on stage we are impatient for their return."


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