Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 6 October, 2011
Artistic director Jonathan Church can once again look back on a Chichester season that has deftly combined box-office appeal with just enough adventurousness to keep both the more staid and the more radical elements of his audience on board. The final in-house show of 2011 looks unlikely to be limited to a modest life on the south coast. Jonathan Kent’s production is dark even by the standards of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 work, but it is the kind of darkness that mesmerises and entices, that lures folk in suspense films into the shadows where we know the slasher awaits.
The slasher in this case is Michael Ball in the title role, almost unrecognisable, his blond curls replaced by a lank curtain of dark hair, a saturnine glower on his face. It is too easy to patronise Ball because of his crossover appeal; he is a performer of both musical and theatrical skill and commitment. Here, however, he is satisfied to regularly donate the prime spot to Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, above whose pie shop Sweeney takes a room and whose bill of fare is soon enriched by his victims. A couple of years ago in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Staunton gave what we then believed was full rein to her remarkable ability to combine repulsion and fascination on her character’s part, and grotesquerie and huggable playfulness in her appeal to spectators. But how much more scope is given to that magic here: I defy anyone not to be delighted, however much against their better judgement, by her delivery of the stream of bad-taste Sondheimian rhyming in the Act One finale, as she fantasises about pies filled with priest, lawyer, Royal Marine and so on. Yet nor do Kent and his cast undersell the more sombre theme that Sweeney and Lovett inhabit a callous world in which man eats man and are merely giving this a literal twist.
Anthony Ward’s design sets the action in a semi-derelict mid-20th-century factory or warehouse, all wire-screen walls and folding steel-lattice gates. I have some reservations about the vocal aspect: Sondheim’s score is often deliberately discordant, but now and again some of the more strident supporting voices seem to meld into a blare of indistinguishable pitch. This may be a fault of the press-night sound mix, or of the Festival Theatre’s acoustics, or simply of my ears. I look forward to having a chance to re-evaluate the matter.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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