Walking home from the theatre last night, we spot something strange on the pavement. A massive spider scuttling across the road?! We look closer: it's just a crack in the concrete. Such is the strain we've been under for the last two-and-three-quarter hours, inanimate non-objects are coming to life before our jittery eyes. We consider sleeping with the lights on.
"But look at the casting of this Sondheim comedy-horror opera-musical hybrid," we hear you cry, refusing to be spooked. "Cherub-faced Radio 2 giggler Michael Ball never hurt everyone. And as for Imelda Staunton, she's in Cranford, for god's sake! Pull yourself together."
What can we say? From the moment Stephen Sondheim's menacing score begins, clashing harmonies spilling from the powerful organ, your nerves are held in a vice. There are comic turns where the vice is loosened; there are love songs, where the pressure doesn't exactly vanish, rather changes; but there's ALWAYS that tension.
If, like us, you've only seen Tim Burton's rather funny film version of Sweeney Todd, hearing Sondheim's horror score played by a live orchestra will be something of a revelation. Did we say played? Make that bashed. And screeched. And sawed, and mashed and throttled and screamed. It's horrible. And wonderful.
Anthony Ward's industrial, multi-level set is pierced with shards of yellowy lighting, creating ghoulish shadows, all greys and browns, until that red chair takes centre stage. The grimy 1930s workers in the ensemble take Todd’s story from quaint Victoriana, and seem to imbue it with all the social injustice of city life throughout the ages as their voices rise through Sondheim’s stings shrieks of anguish.
As you’ll’ve seen from the posters, Michael Ball is barely recognisable. He stalks the stage with a lank Hitler quiff, barrel chested, pale faced, wronged. It's a(nother) thrilling moment when Todd has learnt what's happened to his wife and daughter in his absence, and turns from simple revenge into a murderous psychopath. It's still Michael Ball's voice inside that chest, though; hearing those caramel tones, so suited to Lloyd Webber and Disney songs, laced with Sondheim's unbearably sour strains when he slashes throats, again and again, to the sweet melody of "Johanna" is really chilling.
Better than Ball, it has to be said, is Staunton's performance as Mrs Lovett, the down-at-heel pie shop owner who comes up with a tasty solution for disposing of all the bodies lying around. Staunton manages to bundle up womanly practicality, maternal instincts, unrequited devotion to Todd and utter menace into one perfect little package. Hearing her retch with horror, or delight, or curiosity, or pleasure over the first of Sweeney's victims is both hideous and hilarious.
Superb support is provided by John Bowe’s self-flagellating Judge Turpin and Peter Polycarpou’s nasty Beadle Bamford; the sickly sweet lovers (Luke Brady and Lucy May Barker) perform their underwritten parts with beautiful voices; but all the comedy and the darkness of this impressive show belongs to the leading duo. They're bloody brilliant.
Sweeney Todd plays at the Adelphi Theatre, The Strand, London, WC2, until 22 September. Tickets are kinda pricey: between £67.50 and £20. Visit sweeneytoddwestend.com for more info. Londonist saw Sweeney Todd on a press ticket supplied by The Cornershop PR.