Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre, London’s West End, March 2012

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, yet it’s a dictate usually unheeded, and like Verdi’s Rigoletto, Sweeney Todd’s actions lead to the death of the woman he holds most dear.

The last time I saw this musical drama by Stephen Sondheim was in Chicago with Bryn Terfel as the eponymous character. It was performed at the Lyric Opera House, a vast auditorium seating over three and a half thousand, and Terfel was brilliant of course, but the smaller space at the Adelphi suits this musical work very well, providing a more intense experience. The curved rear of the set made me feel part of the action in this dark staging that uses the full space and height available.

This fine production by Jonathan Kent, with designs by Anthony Ward, was seen at the Chichester Festival Theatre last summer, and transfers the action from the Victorian era to 1930s London. The darkly atmospheric lighting by Mark Henderson cleverly portrays Sweeney in a different glow from other characters, and provides an air of mystery to the ovens and meat processing area in the basement.

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, image Tristram Kenton

Before the prologue we see a darkish stage with cleaners wiping the floors, and clattering and banging going on, when suddenly … the ballad breaks forth. In the end we are back to the same scene, having witnessed an extraordinary story of vengeance, with Michael Ball as a grippingly effective Sweeney, and Imelda Staunton as a plain, homely, yet secretly spooky Mrs Lovett, her dream of a place by the sea beautifully sung.

The supporting roles were all well cast, with tenor Robert Burt as the Italian barber and Dr. Dulcamara-like character Pirelli, and John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou very fine in the villainous pairing of Judge Turpin and the Beadle. James McConville was a wonderfully scraggy yet forceful Tobias, and the other characters all looked and acted their parts as if born to the roles. My only complaint is a few times when the chorus sang together the sound could be deafening, but as a gripping tale, well told, this is hard to beat. The visual effects are excellent yet never get in the way of the story.

Performances continue until September 22 — for details click here, and for cheap tickets here.

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