Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: Sweeney Todd 2012 West End revival

Home again: Sooty London streets humming to the tune of Sondheim

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thursday 21st March 2012
Adelphi Theatre, London

Sweeney Todd
has created a lot of buzz in London this season. The Sondheim favourite isn’t a stranger to West End audiences; it gets revised every four or so years. What has tongues wagging is the cast – lady of laughs Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovitt and aging romantic heartthrob Michael Ball as a middle-aged Anthony…eh, Sweeney Todd?

Staunton seamlessly moves between film and theatre, and Mrs Lovitt is no stretch for her talent. Her comedic timing is impeccable and she skillfully pushes the audience from hysterics in “By the Sea” to authentic fear when Lovitt's evil and twisted side is revealed. Ball is a less logical fit for the title role. After decades known to audiences for his trademark romantic hero roles, he makes an admirable transition to twisted barber. Heavy-set with an oily comb-over, he's almost unrecognisable if not for his unmistakable vibrato. Ball crafts a sufficiently creepy and sympathetic Sweeney and has great chemistry with Staunton, keeping tension taught in their strained but civil relationship.

James McConville gave a formidable performance as the agile and waif-like Tobias, winning the audience with his sweet rendition of “Not While I’m Around”. Luke Brady as Anthony lacked the effortless tenor vocal chops. The chorus were light on sopranos; a fuller top range would have given the “Ballad” reprises more depth to balance the baritones and basses, but some sympathy is deserved considering the ridiculously high soprano vocal score.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics are a witty and sensory delight; from the haunting operatic “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” to the shocking irony of Sweeney's contemplation of the “history of the world” through the frame of Lovitt’s pie shop (“those below serving those up above” and man literally devouring man), to the final grating plot twist that sees Todd so obsessed with revenge that he doesn’t notice his own wife.

The set is minimalist but clever. The invisible partitioning of the stage to represent each character's abode creates consistency and allows the audience to preempt disaster. However, the lever/trapdoor that rises from beneath the stage quickly loses its symbolism due to lazy scene transitions.

The 2012 West End revival of Sweeney Todd makes for a highly enjoyable night of theatre, not at the least because it is a rare opportunity to watch Sondheim's work on the main stage.

Tickets at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Ghost - the musical without a skeleton

Ghost: The Musical
Wednesday 7th March 2012
Piccadilly Theatre, London

My expectations for Ghost, the musical after watching a tear-jerking performance of “With You” at a charity concert were high. The song’s subtle meaning and fragile delivery took me to that vulnerable place where I began contemplating the mortality of my loved-ones. Sadly, one good song and some impressive illusions are about as good as it gets.

The greatest disappointment and most easily fixed problem is the casting of the leads. Soul mates Sam and Molly are demanding characters with constant emotionally charged scenes but Mark Evans and Siobhan Dillon didn’t have the acting chops. Rather than evoking sadness and anger, what eventuated was whiny at times, overly dramatic at others, and more frequently disconnected from emotion altogether.

It didn’t help that the actors had a poor libretto (book by Bruce Joel Rubin, music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) to work with. The first few scenes before Sam’s death were meant to set up his loving relationship with Molly, but the overriding picture was that of a cocky artist with the personality of a goldfish. Their interaction was limited to arguing about a Princess Leia poster, Sam’s inability to say the “L word” and copious amounts of make-out sessions. As a result, there was almost no sense of loss at his death and the rest of the show fought an up-hill battle to make the audience feel emotionally invested in the story.

The score is mostly repetitive, with melodies that go nowhere. The climax of most songs are signaled by the loudness of the orchestra rather than complex tonal progressions and rhythms. Particularly disappointing was “I Had a Life,” which had potential to be an electric shock to the audience as they discover the true reasons behind Sam’s death and instead consists of angry repetition of the phrase “I Had a Life” to an anti-climatically stagnant melody.

Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D Clarke) had the best material to work with, and she delivered it well. She carried all the lightness of the show on her shoulders and her comic timing was very good.

Illusions (Paul Kieve) are the highlight of the show. The revenge scene in the second act gives off a very Matilda-esque vibe and the use of highly advanced tricks to make objects move on their own accord is exciting to watch. The subway scene where commuters and their belongings are thrown around the carriage by the Subway ghost was unique and impressive.

The illusions are aided by a fantastic set and lighting design, and good direction by Matthew Warchus. The ensemble had little to do, but the transition scenes where they walked and danced in front of tall, vibrant projections was an effective way to unobtrusively move large set pieces.

If Ghost is a box office success it is not because the show is good but because it is commercially viable. People having loved the film will want to relive the story onstage. And they’ll get to. But Ghost is a show without a skeleton. On the outside it looks the same as the classic film, but on the inside it lacks the necessary structure to support its own weight. With a more complex plot, a libretto that showed love, grief and hope through melodies and actions rather than cliché words, stronger lead actors, and a more diverse and layered score, the show may have potential to be popular for its own merit rather than simply because it is adapted from a famous movie.

is yet another example of why commercial musicals are doing nothing for the creative energy of theatre on the West End. The West End is crying out for an original story and an inspired score. Matilda is enough to placate for now (and it is truly fantastic), but when a revival of Sweeney Todd (a 30-year-old musical) is one of the few exciting recent developments hitting the main theatre circuit, there is cause for concern.

Tickets at