The last time Michael Ball was in a West End stage musical, he was wearing false breasts, high heels and a beehive wig in John Waters’ Hairspray. His latest outing is a rather more butch affair, as the eponymous lead in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Ball is undoubtedly the big draw in this sell-out musical at the Adelphi Theatre. However, for my money, the star is Imelda Staunton who plays Mrs Lovett, Todd’s landlady. As soon as Staunton comes on stage, she shimmies and twinkles with mischief. And yet there are deep and unsettling undercurrents in her character. At first she is horrified by the grisly murders but this changes into a delighted relish and then a cold, calculated reckoning on how the situation can be turned into a commercial winner. Not many people would have the light-bulb moment of using human flesh as tasty pie filling. But Staunton’s strength of conviction carries us along with this insane notion.
The actress doesn’t have the finest singing voice, but Staunton more than makes up for it with a strong dramatic performance, conveying her passion and love for Todd in a sweet love song, By the Sea. She pulsates with sexual frustration, and imagines a time when she and her sweetheart-slasher will live in a fantasy of romantic bliss. It’s a million miles from their current situation, where Todd’s only passion is for slitting throats and planning revenge on the judge who raped his wife and sent him off to exile.
Ball is in fine voice and has a powerful stage presence, standing legs apart, his hands bunched into fists. His pasty-white face and shadowed dark eyes convey the hurt, grief and rage he has internalised over the years. The singer is hardly recognisable from his trademark character as Mr Showbiz, with a cheeky grin and sunny optimism.
Staunton and Ball are good foils for each other. A highlight of the show is the duet A Little Priest, which has some of the finest Sondheim lyrics. The two leads relish and delight in the clichés and puns of what different professions might taste like: the actor is always overdone and the politician very oily.
Under Jonathan Kent’s direction, this staging has real menace and intrigue, enhanced by the dark and cavernous stage design by Anthony Ward. The added touch of razzmatazz really works to make it enjoyable for those who might be put off by Sondheim’s atonal, unsettling musical score.
Sweeney Todd is at the Adelphi until 22nd September 2012. Tickets are available here.
Watch scenes from Sweeney Todd here