Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler.
At the Adelphi Theatre, London.
Booking to September 22, 2012.
Sondheim’s musical – based on Christopher Bond’s ‘penny dreadful’ horror story of the demon barber of Fleet Street whose customers ended up in meat pies – is a very flexible instrument. It’s been staged as a tiny chamber piece, produced on the world’s grandest opera houses, and everywhere in between. The operatic productions were usually beautifully sung but dramatically inert, and the chamber productions, such as the National Theatre version with Julia McKenzie, were notable for mining the great dramatic and comic potential of Hugh Wheeler’s book, but often they struggled to assemble a whole cast who were up to the vocal demands of the piece. Here, blessed wth two great stars, Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton at the top of their game, Jonathan Kent has got it just right.
A transfer from the current powerhouse that is Chichester Festival Theatre, it also boasts stunning designs. Anthony Ward’s cavernous 1930s industrial setting is gloriously lit by Mark Henderson. These tall shafts of light perfectly evoke a murky underworld and he uses sharp spotlights, rather like a filmmaker would, to provide close-ups. Narrowing the focus like this is central to its success because it helps to marry the intimate and the epic aspects of this great piece. This approach also avoids the need for clunky set changes.
Kent’s decision to set it in the 1930s is inspired, as it immediately takes it away from the kitsch Victorian which nearly smothered Hal Prince’s original. This gritty 1930s East End is more recognisable and it grounds the piece.
Todd, who is driven mad by grief after deportation to Australia on a trumped up charge and losing his wife and daughter to the evil Judge Turpin, is here very much a pawn of Mrs Lovett, and Staunton brings whole new shades to the character. “What a relief, I thought you’d lost your mind” she exclaims on realising he’s just done someone in. Never before has Mrs Lovett’s aching longing for Todd been so beautifully rendered than in the wistful By the sea. Usually done as a comic turn, Staunton mines it for its poignancy and sadness. Her comic timing is also, of course, impeccable and her energy lifts the piece whenever she is on stage.
The score is probably Sondheim’s most lush one and the close harmony singing, such as in the trio Johanna, is exquisite. Jonathan Tunick’s great original arrangements for the piece are only slightly altered here and are beautifully played under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck.
All the key supporting parts are really well sung. West End veteran Peter Polycarpou is perfectly chilling as the odious Beadle Bamford, Robert Burt a wonderful cod Italian ham as the rival barber Pirelli and James McConville a stand out in the role of young Tobias.
Sondheim is the master of using musical counterpoint to communicate ambivalence. A perfect example being when Tobias sweetly sings the lushly romantic Not While I’m Around to Mrs Lovett, as the penny slowly drops with her that she must now kill him because he suspects too much. Only Sondheim would put his most romantic tune to such devilish work.
And as for Michael Ball, well, he is simply a revelation. Gone is the dimpled charmer of the concert hall, to be replaced by a lyric baritone of great dramatic power. It opens up whole new possibilities for him and reveals just what a great talent he is.