Dark and edgy ‘Sweeney Todd’ revival takes six Olivier nominations including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical for Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd in Jonathan Kent's revival of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd in Jonathan Kent’s revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

The stunning new West End revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which opened in London in March 2012, has been nominated for six Olivier Awards, including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical nominations for Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

This production, directed by Jonathan Kent and also nominated for Best Musical Revival, first met audiences at the Chichester Festival Theatre and then transferred to the Adelphi Theatre due to its high popularity.  Sweeney Todd‘s original London run opened in 1980 and picked up the Olivier Award for Best Musical.

For those not familiar with the storyline, Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a bloodthirsty barber, hell-bent on revenge after the corrupt Judge Turpin had him sent to Australia in order to force him to leave his wife Lucy and child Johanna. Upon his return, Mrs Lovett, the owner of a pie shop below the barber shop recognises Todd, and together they plan his revenge on the judge, all while baking murder victims into pies. Ultimately, the conclusion leads to inevitable bloody tragedy, which is accentuated by Sondheim’s hair-raising score.

I had the chance to watch this production, and it was quite an experience. Sweeney Todd is by no means a family friendly show; however the element of terror was particularly heightened in this revival. My first introduction to Sweeney Todd was through the 2007 film, which seemed to draw comedy from the more gruesome aspects, with unnaturally coloured ‘blood’ spurting wildly from every wound. I later went on to discover the Angela Lansbury version, which, while still retaining dark elements, was significantly less gruesome than this production.

Kent’s Sweeney Todd seems to step away from the humor of past productions and creates an altogether more gruesome atmosphere. Chilling sounds echo through the audience in its opening.  I remember the electrifying yet uncomfortable feeling that this left in the audience, courtesy of the show’s sound designer Paul Groothuis, who has been nominated for Best Sound Design.

What is interesting is what this says about modern audiences and how we are often drawn a storyline’s more gruesome aspects. Parents have often attacked video games and movies for being too macabre or a bad influence, but in this production the gore is a main selling point.  Theatre often provides a much more upfront and controversial view of life and perhaps Kent highlighted the grisly and violent murders to attack society’s view on gore and arouse public attention.

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd.

Michael Ball is someone who I’ve been a huge fan of for as long as I can remember. He is probably best known for originating the role of Marius in Les Misérables (my first introduction to him), and also for the song “Love Changes Everything” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. Ball has also played the role of Edna in Hairspray (for which he won an Olivier Award in 2008), and is well known for his charming smile and upbeat demeanor. As a result, it definitely came as a surprise to me, as well as many others, to find him in the title role. But he played it with immense passion and created a  Sweeney both frightening and extremely believable, particularly in numbers such as “Epiphany.”

Imelda Staunton, who portrayed Mrs. Lovett, has terrified audiences across the world as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter but perhaps not to the extent as she does in Sweeney Todd.   Her Mrs. Lovett is downright insane with incredible comic timing to boot. “Worst Pies in London” was an absolute delight to watch, and she was completely immersed in her character.  I had the pleasure of meeting the cast at a CD signing and Imelda was as far from the insane pie maker as you can get. In fact, she was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. It just goes to show how talented these performers are in portraying such diverse characters.

One of the show’s most famous numbers, “A Little Priest,” has often been presented as a comedic song, but Michael and Imelda’s performance was thoroughly terrifying. The pair presented characters who were truly bloodthirsty and relentless and the fact that their characters take Mrs. Lovett’s ideas as a serious proposal rather than a whim made it all the more alarming.

The rest of the cast is also incredibly strong, with John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou as the villainous Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford, Robert Burt as Pirelli, Gillian Kirkpatrick as the Beggar Woman, Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady as Johanna and Anthony and James McConville as Tobias.

Anthony Ward, who has been nominated for an Olivier for his costume designs for the production moved away from the stereotypical Victorian style sported by other revivals and instead moved it to what looked like a grubby workhouse. Despite a film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in 2007 generating an expectation of a Sweeney with hauntingly good looks and fashion sense, Ward’s costume designs echo the grimy set. I thought that this vision worked particularly well and this is probably the strongest adaptation I have seen. Mark Henderson, a five-time Olivier Award winner has once again been nominated for the White Light Award for Lighting Design with Sweeney Todd, and his lighting choices successfully transported the audience to a blood-soaked version of London.

The production ran at the Adelphi Theatre from its previews on March the 10th 2012, and closed on 22th September. Despite the show’s short run, it was considered an extreme success, and its Olivier nominations are a reflection of this gruesomely brilliant production.

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