Confession time. I have never seen Sweeney Todd – until now. Hell, I haven’t even seen much Sondheim. So I’m not going to be able to tell you about past productions and how Jonathan Kent’s reinvention blows them all out the water. But I have seen shedloads of theatre and I can tell you, with eyes glinting and heart racing, that this is one hell of a joyride. I can also tell you that Sondheim, along with Bernstein, is the best musical composer out there. For Sondheim, a musical is not a collection of songs. It is a symphony.
The complexity and stretch of Sondheim’s score is breathtaking. Not a second, or a voice or a single utterance is left to float free from the music. Instead, every ‘yum’, as Mrs Lovett’s customers dig into their fleshy pies, is thread into the music. Every swoon is a note. Every scream becomes a chord. And every chorus member is used with incredible commitment and imagination. Throw away scenes, in this gloriously committed and textured production, become magical moments. When Sweeney Todd pens a poisonous letter, a bedraggled chorus – who have been watching his every move from the metal mesh that encases the stage – bark out his words. The usual lulls that often occur in musicals, as we wait for the next barnstorming number, have been banished here.
This blanket of music smothers the cast and the audience. There is no room to breathe and it is thrilling and frightening. It is a blanket that has been stitched together with the greatest skill. Each song contains a musical’s worth of emotional swings and tonal shifts. Even in the opening number – a time when most composers are still warming up – Sondheim shows us London town in all its technicolour gore and glory. We begin with a romantic homage to our capital city, as young sailor Anthony warmly invokes its magic and promise. Yet, as soon as Michael Ball’s Sweeney Todd enters the shadowy streets of 20th century London, the chords turn sour. Just as London can turn on you in an instant – both now and then – so too does the music. But this is just the beginning. A tramp crawls out from beneath the stage. At first, her hooting calls clang with a horrible emptiness, as she begs for money. But in the space of a few bars, the music turns hard and aggressive, as the desperate tramp pushes her body, her trade, against the naive and frightened sailor.
Just one scene in, and the London streets throb with a menace, that risks engulfing each and every citizen. This claustrophobia builds to an almost unbearable degree, as Sweeney Todd seeks his revenge and slowly absorbs, and expunges, all the evil and injustice of the London streets. This relentless flood of music (silence barely ever settles) takes on a force of its own. The stalking, staccato chords begin to feel like Sweeney’s fate, racing to catch up with him. No matter how deftly Ball navigates those nefarious melodies, the music – and destiny – will defeat him in the end.
Sondheim’s score is such an extraordinary force that it risks sweeping the actors off the stage. Lucky, then, that Ball is one of the few performers capable of meeting Sondheim’s challenge. Initially, it seems like unusual casting. Ball is the epitome of the musical showman; all beaming smiles, curly hair and sparkling eyes. It is hard to even spot Ball on stage, so completely has he transformed. The bouncy hair has been replaced with long, greasy locks. The smile has flattened out. The eyes have died. In fact, there’s something rather robotic about Ball’s performance, which suits the role perfectly: he is a man on revenge auto-pilot. He is also one of the best singers we have and, despite Sondheim chucking in countless chord changes and dazzling riffs, Ball is in consummate control throughout. This is what lends him his power. This is what makes him a hero, despite the countless number of necks he slices through, with his gleaming razors.
Imelda Staunton is only half the singer Ball is but she is ten times the actor. She makes her character, Mrs Lovett, a sympathetic and believable beast. She keeps the musical tethered. Whenever things risk spiralling off into the realm of camp fantasy, Staunton brings us back to reality with a gloriously offbeat line. Just before the interval, Sweeney Todd resolves to reap his revenge on the whole damn town. Once just batty, he turns downright bonkers, as he glides into a magnificently memorable stupor. His eyes glaze over, his song soars to unbelievable heights and the platform, on which he stands, creeps quietly into the stage. It feels as if his madness is infecting us all.
But the joy of Kent’s production is it never lets us ride this wave of lunacy for too long. That would be too easy. Instead, Ball’s brilliant number is brought crashing down to earth with a quick quip from Staunton: ‘First, we have to worry about ‘im’. That is the real beauty of this production: it soars to incredible musical and emotional heights but it is always grounded, and all the more gruesome for this.