Monday, 7 November 2011

You sir... how about a shave?

I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with my Sondheim obsession once more you poor things... because GUESS WHAT'S ON! Yes... what else could it be but;
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
And you can all blame my Uncle, who just happens to be the best one in the world.
I reviewed the National Youth Music Theatre's version (see the review here) in the summer, but I have never seen a full professional production of it before (no offence to the very talented guys in the NYMT!) so you can imagine my indecent levels of excitement when, on my birthday, I opened a card to find an invitation to the Chichester Festival Theatre to see the Demon Barber and his pie-baking accomplice at work...
So off we went! On Thursday! Starring were Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, and the usually adorable, cuddly Michael Ball as Sweeney. Now I knew she'd be perfect, but I wondered what they were going to do about Michael's instantly loveable features.
I'll show you just what they did; look at this snapshot!       > > > > >
Scary. His slicked hair, hollowed eyes and sharp beard really suited Sweeney; and of course Imelda Staunton's little, bawdy, busybody Nelly Lovett complimented him perfectly! She was incredibly funny, adding her own quirks to the already quirky character, but still in fact much darker than, say, Angela Lansbury's rather music hall characterisation in the original cast. Right at the end, when Sweeney pretends to forgive her for deceiving him (before throwing her into the fire) Staunton's Mrs Lovett was still frightened; she knew that she wasn't going to get out of this one, no matter what he said, and it was this genuine fear and realisation of what she has unleashed in him that was so subtle, and yet so central to the character. Ball's Todd had a real East End twang to his voice, something I'd not really heard, and it suited him. He had the right balance of malice, black humour, and finally, psycho, that it needed, and it really struck all the right chords; together, they worked like a dream. I could watch them all day.
What struck me at first was the time frame; Sweeney Todd is set in dark, dirty, Victorian London. This production, however, was set in dark, dirty, blitzed East End London, and the transition was remarkably smooth; 40's London also had buildings that were liable to collapse at any moment (the balcony above the stage looked hauntingly good as a round, tiled, bombed train station), a shortage of food and generally uncertain hygiene among the poor. The new timeline was a fantastic idea, giving it a real edge, and making it stand out vividly from other productions. In the spoken lines some changes had been made ('shillings' to 'quid' e.t.c) but there were still moments where the Victorian shined through; the Judge sentences a man to hang for thieving... Sweeney has been transported for life to Australia... the madhouse is named 'Bedlam'; and it is of course the madhouse, that quintessentially Victorian obsession, that is the biggest sticking point. Those horrific asylums had moved on considerably by the Forties, with the First World War sparking research into mental health, but really, the rest of the tale is so filled with horror, that historical accuracy stops making a difference. If Johanna must be sent to a madhouse, by God, it is going to be a recognisably nightmarish one!
And of course, the music; Sondheim's music gives me the shivers, and then it makes me laugh. My favourite song, 'A Little Priest', where Todd and Mrs Lovett merrily discuss the different flavours of human that will grace her pies after he's dispatched the unfortunate souls was brilliant, and always seems to be an audience favourite. The shivers come mainly when the chorus are working their magic. Sondheim commented that he hates hearing choruses that are just one melody being sung by all; he thinks it implies that all the characters have the same thought, and that that's silly. While I'm all for the chorus of 'There's Nothing Like a Dame' in South Pacific, the way Sondheim brings so many layers into the chorus, or indeed into any line, gives it a very unearthly quality and is part of his unique, instantly recognisable sound. In the final bars of the musical, the grille went up at the back of the stage and we see Todd enthroned on his barber chair - in the same position as when we first see him but this time with the added devil on his shoulder, Mrs Lovett - and the chorus warned us that he could be right next to us, 'perhaps today you gave a nod / to Sweeney Todd', and I got the shivers as suddenly, with their dissonant chord humming in the background, one by one, they spotted him high on his throne, and pointed, accusingly; 'There! There!'
It's coming to London! Hurrah! Chichester (who have been hogging it for far too long, in my opinion) have let us have it! I will be constantly checking theatre sites and gearing up my Sondheim buddy - everyone needs one - for a trip.

West End Girl x
(becoming a bit of a misnomer... promise I'll be back in London next time!)


  1. Can't wait 'til it arrives in London! Sounds fabulous, glad you had a great day!

  2. What a treat - for you, and to us for being able to read such a detailed review. I adore Imelda Staunton and I'd love to see this. Doubt I'll manage to get to London. However, thoroughly enjoyed reading about it here.