Review – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Chichester Festival Theatre

Thursday 13 October 2011

Notes for Andrew who is due to see this within a few weeks.

Boring travel details first: We put ourselves in an upbeat mood by eating pies (inappropriately cold) as we travelled to Chichester before being thrown unceremoniously off the train at Barnham. Jolly mood quickly dissipated. Allow plenty of time to get there.

No direct trains back to London. Swathes of grumpy Sondheim aficionados cluttering the platform. Return journey: 3 and a half hours.

Do the dream team of Messrs Ball and Staunton appreciate the lengths we go to?

Director Jonathan Kent has updated Sweeney Todd‘s melodrama to 1930s. Why? It’s a piece of Victorian Grand Guignol (Music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim, book Hugh Wheeler). Updating adds nothing. Fortunately it doesn’t detract too much. Doesn’t Kent realise “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is from a different Sondheim show?

You know the story. Todd returns to London seeking revenge having been despatched to Oz on a trumped up charge by a randy judge. Mislays his family in the process. Sets up barber shop above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. Monstrously talented at cutting hair and throats. Drifts into serial-killing by chance aided by Mrs L who invents recycling to bolster her struggling business.

Despite occupying top price seats, the staging (design Anthony Ward), which sprawls all over the ghastly Chichester Festival Theatre‘s thrust stage, makes it hard to see some of the things going on, especially in the broken giant salad spinner which looms overhead. Keep an eye on it as a few things go on up there, though you’re unlikely to see them.

The general look is effectively gloomy. Probably too gloomy for you, Andrew. Lots of stretched shadows and dingy recesses. Splendid lighting (Mark Henderson).

More gripes. Could only just see the sign on rival barber Pirelli’s (Robert Burt – very fine, very Gocompare) truck. Presumably a third of the audience couldn’t. Similarly couldn’t see Todd’s reaction to Mrs Lovett’s “By the Sea”. The opposite side of auditorium must have suffered the same during some of “A Little Priest”. Only half the audience reacted to the hand of Todd’s first victim sticking out of a trunk. I only noticed it due to the their reaction. Another victim’s demise slightly masked by chairs which clutter Act Two. Grrr.

Sondheim’s score seems to have been slowed down slightly, but it does mean the lyrics come across clearly. Especially important in “A Little Priest” which is delivered to its full comedic potential. Hurrah!

You are unlikely to be disappointed by Imelda Stauton‘s chirpily needy Mrs Overall-ish Mrs Lovett. She offers very funny comic relief against Michael Ball‘s Todd. One of my companions (Michael) found her footwear rather distracting. He also didn’t realise that Mr Ball was wearing a wig and complained later that as I’d pointed it out at the interval he was distracted by it in Act 2. This is the same person who accused me of being picky about the sightlines.

Gillian Kirkpatrick does well in the tricky role of the Beggar Woman as does James McConville with his suitably waif-like Tobias. Peter Polycarpou Beadles about to good effect. The wonderful Valda Aviks is thrown away in the ensemble; presumably she’s Staunton’s understudy. Would love to see her Lovett too.

Shook my programme on Mr Ball’s first appearance expecting an indisposition slip to fall out. Was this really him? Unrecogniseable. Everyone says he looks like David Brent in The Office. I though this is how Phil Jupitus would have looked had he been in The Human League.

All are saying Ball is a revelation. But he revealed himself to us already when he played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Here he has discovered a new part of himself to expose and this is equally unexpected. His voice is especially fine; his brooding introspection chilling. Most epithets seem too bland to describe what he has whipped out here.

A transfer seems inevitable. As does an another Olivier Award for Mr Ball. Sightline problems will presumably be left behind in Chichester, hopefully along with its consumptive audience. Would happily see it again.

Don’t want to big it up too much or you may be disappointed. Confession time. I couldn’t help myself. You weren’t there to seize my shirt tails. I ovated for Mr Ball. So there.

Foot (12 inch?) note
Andrew Lloyd Webber in the audience. Also in the toilet. Held door open for him, he said “thank you” before the “conversation” dried up. Relieved myself  two urinals away yet failed to find out if Sarah Brightman was telling porkies. He performed his ablution with remarkable speed and dexterity. Will his pants never dry?


8 Responses to “Review – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Chichester Festival Theatre”

  1. sara nathan Says:

    Can’t wait – booked tickets as booking opened. You haven’t put me off and I jave seen virtually every London production including by the lifers in Wormwood Scrubs.

    Will probably go again on transfer

    Still Saving Gaby’s Deli!i

  2. Michael Says:

    Interesting. Driving over from Devon to see it on Saturday – so excited. Wonder how it will compare to the Opera North production with Beverly Klein of about 10 yeras ago?

  3. jenny hamilton Says:

    Saw it on Wednesday from front row in the middle so didn’t miss a thing!!!! Travel down on the train was straight forward, no hold-up, sorry!!!! Absolutely fabulous, as they say, I would see it again and again if I could get tickets!! Roll on West End…..

  4. Schuttep Says:

    Saw part of it on 7 October before the show was abandoned – a scenery truck jammed.
    Judi Dench was in the audience.
    The trick to avoiding the 3 and a half hour return is to get a taxi to Arundel and get the (one and a half hour) train back to London.

  5. michael Says:

    Love it Philip – you’ve exactly caught my response to the production too but with wit and imagination.
    The PS is a masterstroke!

  6. Katy Says:

    Sounds wonderful, despite the sightlines, travel time and inability to say anything memorable to ALW in the gents. I’m sitting by the sunny pool at my delightful colonial hotel in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua’s premier pacific coast resort, yet I feel envious that I’ve missed out on such a great musical theatre experience in autumnal Chichester, not to mention the WEW annual bash tonight. Hope it’s a blast, boys, and please toast absent friends. Katy xxx

  7. Ali67 Says:

    It’s a fabulous production.. Brilliantly designed. Can’t wait to see it at the Adelphi..

  8. Stanspal Says:

    Saw it last Friday for a matinee. Public transport from Cotswolds to Chichester not an option – but road trip fine – and car park amazingly cheap!

    Have never seen the tension in ‘Nothing’s going to harm you’ so well done. There was a wonderfully chilling moment when Imelda Staunton conveyed that she was thinking about throttling Toby with the muffler she’d been knitting him. Goose bump city

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