All the people I am related to, and quite a few more people besides, have heard more than they ever need to about how much I didn’t like Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd. It wasn’t so much that I thought it was awful as that I had such high hopes for it, for which I have only myself to blame, given that I already knew that I don’t like Tim Burton (because all his films are ugly).
But I think I thought that Stephen Sondheim would save the day, and so I eagerly trotted along to the Ritzy in Brixton by myself one weekday afternoon, fully armed with popcorn and a giant bucket of Coke – this was back in the days when the Ritzy’s soft drinks machines used to sometimes work – and settled in ready to be delighted. And so, of course, I wasn’t. I have always maintained that it was because none of the actors could sing, but actually I think it was just the drab greyness of the thing. And also that none of the actors could sing.
Most of the actors in the current London production can sing. In fact, Michael Ball’s voice almost feels wasted in the role of Sweeney, because he rarely gets to sing with anything like his full voice. But you can hear the depth and the richness of his tenor even when he’s holding it right back to barely a whisper, and I’d rather have a lead with too much voice than too little, Johnny Depp.
What else is good? Ball as Sweeney and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett are both convincingly bedraggled and raddled by a life in the gutter (again, in contrast to the film), and Imelda Staunton carries her scenes with a wit and a warmth that lightens the whole production (which is mostly performed in the dark). Everyone else is as good as they need to be, although I found Lucy May Barker’s Johanna a teeny bit shrieky, but that sort of works in the context of the role.
The staging is adequate, which is to say it does what it needs to, but it only made me want to clap my hands once (I’m not telling you when, it’s better as a surprise), and although it was authentically gloomy and forbidding, with its multi-tiered scenery and the Greek chorus of onlookers periodically disappearing into the shadows, that was rather at odds with the overall feel of the piece, which is a jaunty sort of black comedy with lyrical moments that call to mind Flanders and Swann (“the trouble with a poet/is how do you know it/is deceased?/Try the priest!“) rather than Burke and Hare.
This is a problem with the whole show, though, and it makes me realise that part of what I hated about the Burton film isn’t his fault at all, because actually, how do you stage a Victorian horror story when (some of) the lyrics are so upbeat and silly? As a farce? I’d like to see someone try it, but I don’t know that it would work any better. The problem is that the songs don’t match the story.
That said, I don’t want you to think that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I just wish it had either looked a little less doomy, or that it had been performed with a little more grimness of purpose (which is not a suggestion I have ever found myself making before). But there’s lots to like, and the music is of course fantastic (even though you can’t hum it afterwards, but I think that’s OK as long as you’re prepared for it), and Patrick Stewart was sitting two rows in front of me and he (along with everyone else) gave it a standing ovation, and if Patrick Stewart’s recommendation isn’t enough for you then you are being too fussy by half.