“So changed!” exclaims Nellie Lovett. “What have they done to you?” It’s true. It’s hard to recognise the chubby, cuddly, angelic-looking Michael Ball now transformed into the demonic mass murderer, Sweeney Todd, in Stephen Sondheim’s bloody brilliant musical which had its official opening night at the Adelphi Theatre, London, on Tuesday.
There’s no more Mr Nice Guy. Gone are the playful blond curls to be replaced with a greasy looking black barnet and goatee, sallow complexion and wild-eyed insanity.
Sweeney Todd was the demon barber of Fleet Street, an infamous London road more used to death by lethal pen from the once proud national press than by a cutthroat razor.
Director Jonathan Kent’s Gothic horror has been updated to somewhere in the late 1920s or early ‘30s but still set in the grimy mire and smog of London’s poorest streets (a darkly atmospheric design from Anthony Ward).
Ball’s Todd is mesmerising. You keep staring at him wondering if it really is the star of Hairspray, Phantom and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The transformation is remarkable and all credit to the actor’s versatility.
But he’s hardly a cheerful chappie, and with good reason, dispatching victims with detached brutality while singing the musical’s keynote ballad, Johanna.
There’s always the tremendous Imelda Staunton to lift the mood as piemaker extraordinare, Mrs Lovett, and Todd’s landlady, who comes up with the inspired idea of disposing of the barber’s butchered bodies in the contents of her pies. (Note to cooks: Apparently, the key to a good pie is to grind the meat three times).
The gallows humour, mostly from Lovett’s slick tongue, is a welcome distraction to the quite brutal way the innocent and not so customers are finished off. The musical isn’t for the squeamish.
There’s only one body before the interval but the killing begins in earnest in Act Two. Todd has returned to The Smoke following transportation on a trumped up charge to seek revenge on the man who sent him down, raped his wife and stole his baby daughter Johanna.
He carries out his task with the dedication of a true professional.
John Bowe (Corrie’s corrupt property developer Duggie Ferguson) turns in yet another great performance as the pantomime baddie and Todd’s nemesis, Judge Turpin. As well as being one of the capitol’s most corrupt lawmen he’s also a rapist, paedophile and flagellant. Bowe has a ball.
The large cast are faultless in their support (though it was off-putting to see a character looking remarkably like the GoCompare man popping up as a rival barber) and the show well deserved its standing ovation.
This Chichester transfer isn’t for kids - the blood-letting is pure Hammer horror - but it’s a memorable treat for the rest.