Sweeney Todd – October 2011

6/10

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th October 2011

I didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did, but it was a superb production, and although it’s not my kind of thing I’m glad I’ve seen it. Steve would have rated it higher, at 8/10.

I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the set, which was absolutely fantastic. The central roller door concealed the large square platform which had the barber’s shop on top of it (and space underneath for the bodies to be deposited). To the left was the pie shop, with the main counter pushed forward as needed, and the recesses behind, and on the right were a steam whistle and the oven for the pie shop! There was also a large set of stairs which came forward for Johanna’s song about birds and freedom, and a trapdoor through which came various items, including a sofa and a meat grinder (not at the same time, of course). There were electric lights everywhere, and the period for the costumes and set was the 1930s – an unusual choice, made deliberately to bypass the musical’s Victorian ‘baggage’. Personally, I think this period setting worked very well, and gave the piece a more contemporary edge.

The story was very well told, and I was surprised to find how much I sided with Mr Todd and his macabre accomplice in crime, Mrs Lovett. Knowing about the back story helped, and in this production they showed the rape at the back of the stage, up on the platform, while Mrs Lovett was describing it. It was tough viewing, but certainly won my sympathy for the revenge aspects of the story. Of course, I realised who the mad beggar woman was early on, so I settled back for an intelligent and dark Victorian melodrama to music.

And the music was excellent, too. The cast were all miked up, of course, but even so the singing was fantastic – Michael Ball was on great form – and the pie-eating song at the start of the second half was the highlight for me. The choreography for that bit was excellent too, with that delicious pause after the barber has cut another throat before Mrs Lovett announces ‘fresh supplies’! Imelda Staunton is never less than superb, and her Mrs Lovett was wonderfully creepy – she thoroughly deserved her final roasting. John Bowe was a good villain as the judge, and the whole ensemble worked wonderfully well together.

Although I enjoyed some parts of the evening, I found a lot of it quite boring, especially the young lovers’ sections. I found I could hear some of the sung words clearly, usually when there were only one or two people singing, but then the chorus joined in and it all became a jumble of sound. This was also true of the young lovers, who sang well but not clearly enough for me, and I lost interest as I couldn’t engage with them at all. The plot was pretty obvious, so there wasn’t a lot to hold my attention for most of the evening, especially when Imelda wasn’t on stage. And even then, some of the songs went on a bit too long, such as the fantasy human pie-eating. Still, I wasn’t as put off by the murder and cooking as I thought I would, and there was more humour than I expected, so the evening was by no means wasted. Not one I’d see again, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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