Saturday, 22 September 2012
"Sweeney Todd," starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, at the Adelphi Theatre (8th September 2012)
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Warning: there is a bit of rudeness in this post again.
At the end of last year I heard about the new production of "Sweeney Todd" that cast Michael Ball in the title role. I unwisely made a couple of comments on Twitter - I can't remember exactly what now - disagreeing with the casting. I was, quite rightly, picked up on this by a Michael Ball fan, subsequently felt guilty, and wrote this. Despite being sceptical about the casting, as a huge Sondheim fan I took the opportunity to see the production with my parents (but without Mark, who is musicals adverse).
I think my parents were relieved that I liked it, because I did warn them that I would get very ranty if I thought that the production was badly done. I knew it was going to be good when I wanted to leave during the opening piece of music. I know how odd that sounds. I love the opening of "Sweeney Todd," and I think it should be full-on and powerful - if it doesn't make me feel a bit claustrophobic and oppressed, then they aren't doing it right. In this particular production I almost felt close to tears with its intensity but, in honesty, PMT at the time might have had some bearing on this. If you don't know the musical, its themes take in the evils of industrialisation and the opening piece of of music has a sudden, piercing factory whistle (or, in one production that I saw years ago, a scream). On my first hearing of the production - courtesy of the OBC recording - the factory whistle scared the hell out of me, which I loved. I used to miss the fact that the factory whistle no longer made me jump as it did that very first time. However, because I had fallen from the path of true enlightenment and not listened to any Sondheim for a while, I forgot exactly when it came in so still had a bit of a jump. It was nice to get that feeling back again.
I am pleased to say that I was wrong to doubt the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney. He looked almost unrecognisable (someone told me afterwards that when it first opened there were people who wanted a refund because they thought they had seen it on a night Michael Ball wasn't on) and sounded very different to the tone and timbre that I associate with his singing style. Apart from the occasional slightly more lyrical parts - like his love song to his razors - his voice was rougher and harsher than I usually think of him sounding. He has a particularly effective glower. I think Sweeney should obviously be intense and scary - I still think of Len Cariou as my idea of Sweeney from the OBC - but this was the first time I thought of it as a problem. Anyone in their right mind would take one look at him and decide that there was no way he would be coming near their neck with a cut-throat (the clue's in the name) razor. It's also - and explain this to me if you can, because I don't understand it - the sexiest I have seen him. If anything, my one issue with his performance might be that he takes it too seriously - "A Little Priest" seemed a little bit heavy, whereas I personally think it should have a lighter touch and bring out a bit more of the humour and devilish merriment in their verbal sparring.
Imelda Staunton was great, but I never doubted that she would be. While I still rate Len Cariou as my most effective Sweeney, I have issues with Angela Lansbury's accent in the OBC. I possibly prefer Imelda Staunton's Mrs Lovett. The character should provide the warmth and humour to counterpoint Sweeney's violence - twisted and amoral though she may be - and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast to provide this leavening. Yet there is also pathos, sadness and desperation in her portrayal, particularly in her performance of "By the Sea" - Mrs Lovett's fantasy of keeping a boarding house by the sea with Sweeney where "now and then [he] can do a guest in" - in which her hopes and wishes are blatantly ignored by the monomaniacal Sweeney.
This was a production that kept in Judge Turpin's song "Johanna," in which he whips himself while fantasising about his young ward. There is an effective ambiguity to this song in whether his self-flagellation is the punishment it ostensibly is (mea culpa) or is integral to his sexual excitement. I normally admire this song because I think it is artistically quite brave and risky, as well as saying a lot about Turpin's sexual perversion. However, this time, sitting between my parents while watching a middle-aged man whip himself to orgasm, the social discomfort made me wish for the first time that they had cut it out (I'm being facetious - really I'm pleased that they had the nerve to include it). I'm also glad we weren't sitting near the front, as the actor (John Bowe) really seemed to be going for it and sweat seemed to be flying. When I go to the theatre I personally prefer not to end up covered with someone else's sweat. He didn't get a round of applause after this number, which is understandable as somehow it seems deeply inappropriate to clap after a number with a middle-aged man self-flagellating while fantasising about - if you do the maths - a 16 year old girl.
Judge Turpin was my main issue with the production, and it would be unfair to blame the actor for this as he was presumably directed to play the role in that way that he did. He seemed to be particularly over-the top, almost syphilitically randy. I'm not surprised that Johanna didn't want to marry him, since he seemed to be groping himself whilst suggesting himself as a possible husband. I personally feel that this part is more effective if played as outwardly respectable while concealing a heart of darkness. This judge seemed to be wearing his dark heart on his sleeve a little too obviously.
I have to say that my mother liked the production less than my father and I did; I think she was a bit squeamish about the throat cutting (which wasn't too graphic except, probably for emphasis, Judge Turpin was a bit blood-spurty). I was actually more surprised that this production is probably the most graphic I have seen in bringing out the sexual violence and madness in the story. The dumb show of the forced seduction of Benjamin Barker's wife by Turpin was particularly unambiguous. The beggarwoman - Lucy - is clearly sexualised in approaching men, but so were the inmates of Fogg's asylum. One mad woman very clearly had a hand busy under her skirts. I felt that this aspect of the production - with the possible exception of the overly-priapic judge - was very effective.
This was an excellent production which, despite my initial doubts, I am very glad that I saw (I am writing this on 22nd September which, by coincidence, I think might be the closing night of the production). I bought the cast recording as a memento, which serves as a fine reminder of the show (although, oddly, omits the Judge's whipping song - OK, maybe not that oddly - and the shaving contest with Pirelli, which were both in the stage production).
See, you have to give me some credit, at least I admit when I am wrong: Michael Ball was great after all...