BY VIV WILBY
I said when it came out that Tim Burton’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd was his best for a long time. Maybe I got carried away in the moment. A couple of years on, I’m coming round to the view that most of what impressed me was down to Sondheim and not Burton.
I didn’t know the show at all before I saw the Burton film and I’d always been somewhat prejudiced against the whole Sweeney Todd thing. I was scarred by my experience of a dreadful schools’ musical version of the tale (I’m Sweeney Todd the bar-ber, An evil soul I har-bour, I run a little business cutting hair and other things) with which we occupied a couple of ‘music’ lessons in the third year. The few songs that I’d heard sounded difficult and discordant, full of tricky rhythms and rhymes. ‘The Worst Pies in London’ is not a song that makes a whole lot of sense shorn of context and live performance.
But even with weedy vocals supplied by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter (too young and pretty for Sweeney and Mrs Lovett), and even with Burton’s indifference to the musical format (he admitted as much in the post-screening interview), the film helped me make sense of my fragments of knowledge and disordered preconceptions and turned me on to Sweeney Todd. Thanks Tim!
Ever since, I’ve been keen to see the show in all its theatrical glory, and the recent transfer of Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival Theatre production to the West End gave me my opportunity.
Sondheim has described the plot as a ‘Victorian potboiler’. Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, returns to London from exile in Australia, determined to wreak vengeance on the man who sent him there, the corrupt and powerful Judge Turpin. Turpin destroyed the Barker family, raping and killing Sweeney’s wife and now raising Sweeney’s daughter Johanna as his own.
Sweeney, a barber by trade, hooks up with his old landlady, the hapless Mrs Lovett and takes rooms above her meat pie shop in Fleet Street. In her he finds a willing accomplice and as his murderous missions spirals out of control they begin their man-pie production line.
The tale has its roots in the lurid penny-dreadfuls popular in the nineteenth century, and indeed Sondheim’s lyrics and melodies recall the patter of cockney English and the tunes of the music hall. Look at stills of Len Cariou from the original Broadway production and you’ll see he’s got up almost like a mime, face caked in white panstick, a theatrical bogeyman. The poster artwork recalls the grotesque cartoons with which John Tenniel illustrated the Alice books.
But there’s more here than a cheap exercise in mock Victoriana. The characters rise above their origins as the stock figures of melodrama. Fatally flawed and blinded by obsession, Sweeney is a tragic figure in a grand tradition that stretches back to Macbeth, even to Oedipus. Mrs Lovett wants nothing more than a prosperous business and a lover to come home to every night, but in her single-minded pursuit of these commonplace ambitions she throws away her moral compass and loses herself in the most horrific crimes. Even the villainous Judge Turpin is more than a moustache-twirling libertine. Riddled with self-loathing and disgust he whips himself to beat down the demons of his lust. His song ‘Mea Culpa’ echoes Claudius’s soliloquy in Hamlet — ‘My words fly up to heaven, my thoughts remain below.’ And indeed, Sweeney’s slow dalliance with Turpin during their first encounter in the barber shop recalls Hamlet chancing upon the kneeling Claudius. ‘Now might I do it pat,
now he is praying I am shaving.’
It’s a reflection of these grander themes, and no coincidence I think, that Sweeney Todd has become part of the operatic repertoire (here’s opera star Bryn Terfel singing the part at the Proms from a couple of years back ) although Sondheim himself has resisted such a label, preferring to describe the piece as a ‘dark operetta’. The use of the chorus anchors the piece to a classical tradition, both in a dramatic and a musical sense. They provide ironic commentary and horrified witness to the action. The framing narrative song ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ (cut by Burton in the film) roots it in a kind of folk opera tradition and makes me think of Kurt Weill. It builds to a frenzied crescendo, their voices rising up like a choir of the damned. ‘Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies! Freely flows the blood of those who moralize!’
Essaying all this in the current production we get Michael bloomin’ Ball. Chubby, curly-haired and ever-so-slightly fey, he’s not who you’d first think of as the demon barber of Fleet Street. He made his name playing romantic idealists in Les Miserables and Aspects of Love and more recently as a genial Radio 2 host. But there’s nothing romantic or idealistic or genial about Sweeney Todd and it is to Ball’s credit that his transformation and performance renders him unrecognisable. The wavy blond hair has been replaced by a dank, greasy forelock and he sports an unflattering goatee. The only glimpse of the old Michael Ball that I occasionally saw, or rather heard, was in the voice. Now and then I’d catch a lightness and a sweetness to Ball’s singing at odds with Todd’s morbidity. I’m not quite convinced he pulled off the character’s biggest moment (Not one man, no not ten men, nor a hundred will assuage me) in ‘Epiphany’, but the sheer drama of the moment (the stage thrust forward towards the audience, the spotlight singling out some unlucky chap in the circle) made up for any lack of vocal depth.
Imelda Staunton, on the other hand, was born to play Mrs Lovett. Tiny and rat-like, she reminded me of all those cringing waitresses and shop assistants Julie Walters so excelled at playing. Mrs Lovett gets the best lines and the most fun songs and Staunton milks it for all she’s worth. Her timing is bang-on and her diction pin-sharp.
Kent has earned some stick for his decision to update the action to the 1930s, but I liked the way he freed the characters from their Victorian moorings and sidesteps anything too gothic (I had my fill of that with the Burton film). There’s a downbeat naturalism to the costumes and sets. It’s the past, yes, but not such a distant one. It’s a picture of depression-hit London that in its cynicism, greed and violence isn’t a million miles away from today’s city. Even the theatre is within staggering distance of Fleet Street. This feels like a Sweeney for our time and place.
Sweeney Todd is playing at the Adelphi Theatre, London, until September