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Review Round-up: Chichester Sweeney a Cut Above?

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Jonathan Kent's revival of Steven Sondheim's classic musical thriller Sweeney Todd opened to press last week (6 October 2011, previews from 24 September) at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

In this production, set in 1930s London, Sweeney Todd (Michael Ball) is heartbroken over the death of his wife. He returns to London after years of false imprisonment and opens a barber shop to take revenge by murdering all of his customers. Suddenly, Mrs Lovett's (Imelda Staunton) meat pie shop is no longer in short supply.

Sweeney Todd also features Lucy May Barker, John Bowe, and Luke Brady and runs until 5 November.

Maxwell Cooter

"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’s a move that doesn’t really enhance the piece ... Anthony Ward's design ... adds to the air of menace. Ball, looking disconcertingly like Ricky Gervais, is a brooding, saturnine presence and gives a compelling portrait of a man driven insane by thoughts revenge. I’m not sure that his voice quite generates the right amount of malevolence but he certainly is a menacing presence ... It's Staunton's performance that is the true highlight of the evening. She wrings every ounce of humour from the rapacious Mrs Lovett ... Her duet with Ball on 'A Little Priest' is the show’s highlight ... There's decent support too from John Bowe as the villainous judge with Peter Polycarpou as his sidekick but neither of the young lovers, Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady really convinces ... It looks like Chichester has a big hit on its hands."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

" ... Though there are undoubtedly many moments here that achieve the right mixture of nervous laughter and spine-tingling terror this strikes me as a production that doesn’t quite do justice to a masterpiece ... Perhaps Kent’s idea was to make the piece seem more 'relevant' by reminding us of the great slump of the 1930s as our economy goes down the plughole yet again, but I do wish he had left well alone. I was also less than persuaded by Michael Ball’s performance in the title role. With his pale plump face, goatee beard and lank dark forelock of hair, he certainly looks sinister. But he also looks like David Brent in The Office, and his voice doesn’t always rise to either the vocal or the dramatic challenges of the role. He tries hard, and certainly dispels the cosy image of his Radio 2 programme but he never quite penetrates the dark rancorous heart of Sweeney."

Michael Billington

"Anthony Ward's design, with its circular gallery filled with gaping windows, evokes the seething activity of a dilapidated, working-class London ... So Ball presents us with a potato-faced, dark-haired guy you could easily pass in a crowd and who only reveals his murderous fixation in private. We also see, in the show's most thrilling moment, Sweeney's transition from vengeance-seeker to serial killer. In Sweeney's Epiphany the set trucks forward and, Ball's voice rings out as his malignant gaze rakes the auditorium and he pronounces: 'We all deserve to die.' ... Imelda Staunton also mixes contrapuntal comic relief with a detailed portrait of a woman in whom lust and greed overcome morality. Staunton and Ball together also turn the wickedly funny number, 'A Little Priest', into a competitive game in which each tries to outwit the other. My favourite moment comes when Staunton, challenging her partner to match her in rhyme as well as crime, triumphantly comes up with 'locksmith.' ... The result is a memorable evening in which Sondheim's musical achieves, and frequently outdoes, the skin-prickling power of Jacobean revenge drama."

Edward Seckerson

"I’ve been sitting on this one for a few days pondering what it is about Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival staging of Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd that fails to deliver ... Bottom line: it didn’t feel 'dangerous' enough, it didn’t shock or surprise. Correction: Michael Ball momentarily surprised with his quiet, low-key, cockney-inflected, menace ... But how did it sit with Imelda Staunton’s hilariously knowing turn as Mrs Lovett? She was, as we all predicted, terrific and often quite original in the role – you could never second-guess her take on the succession of well-worn one-liners ... The Johanna, Lucy May Barker, was nowhere near it vocally, the Anthony, Luke Brady, was slight, and the Judge, John Bowe, lost authority when he sang. The dubious self-flagellation number 'Deliver Me' (at one time excised) was frankly embarrassing. I loved James McConville’s street-urchin Tobias but again one had to sacrifice the beauty of 'Not While I’m Around' to his vulnerability ... Kent’s staging yields little or nothing to Hal Prince’s original in many respects but in 2011 we need to be shaken and stirred to within an inch of our theatrical senses – and I for one never was."

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

"Jonathan Kent’s production is dark even by the standards of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 work, but it is the kind of darkness that mesmerises and entices, that lures folk in suspense films into the shadows where we know the slasher awaits ... It is too easy to patronise Ball because of his crossover appeal; he is a performer of both musical and theatrical skill and commitment. Here, however, he is satisfied regularly to donate the prime spot to Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett ... I defy anyone not to be delighted by her delivery of the stream of bad-taste Sondheimian rhyming in the Act One finale ... Yet nor do Kent and his cast undersell the sombre theme that Sweeney and Lovett inhabit a callous world in which man eats man and are merely giving this a literal twist ... Anthony Ward’s design sets the action in a semi-derelict mid-20th-century factory or warehouse, all wire-screen walls and folding steel-lattice gates. I have reservations about the vocal aspect: Sondheim’s score is often deliberately discordant, but now and again some of the more strident supporting voices seem to meld into an indistinguishable pitch."

Libby Purves
The Times

"It’s the familiar Sondheim masterwork, but never so thrilling, dark, wild and truthful as under Jonathan Kent’s direction. Under a high gantry where the orchestra beats out demonic energy, the labouring poor struggle, eat or are eaten: the costumes suggest 1930s rather than Victoriana but injustice, poverty and revenge are timeless, as is tragedy ... Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett is fabulously funny from her first dishevelled extolling of The Worst Pies in London ... She is touching, too, in her lonely dreams of love, and miraculously keeps us on her side all through the cannibalistic pie boom, only sinister in the last horrid moments. But if Staunton’s evolution is satisfying, Michael Ball is a revelation. We all know he is a safe pair of lungs, but his Sweeney is intense, pitiable, real. The journey from victim to avenger to serial killer takes on a kind of grandeur. This suits Sondheim’s score and lyrics, which veer from playful melodrama to fiery staccato energy and to romance ... when at last he cradles the dead beggar-woman, you think of Lear or Oedipus. Honest. It’s that good ... James McConville deploys a reedily strong Sondheim voice in this difficult score, handling youthful energy and horrified pathos with assurance."

- Natalie Generalovich

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