Sondheim's wonderful black comedy about a gruesome serial killer, starring Imelda Staunton (very funny, and revealing what to me was a hitherto unknown ability to sing rather well) and Michael Ball, once a heartthrob, now somewhat overweight and looking deeply saturnine and scary (there's never been any doubt about his ability to sing). Seen for the very first time. Production transferred from Chichester.
I realised a few minutes in that this is the first time (with the exception of a childhood trip to see A Little Night Music) that I've ever seen a Sondheim musical in a big theatre, with the inevitable aircraft-hangar amplification. All previous exposure has been in small houses with only modest amplification or none at all, where you can hear every word and see the actors' expressions up close. This may, I now realise, have partly accounted for a willingness to except Sondheim from a general anathema against musicals.
Nonetheless, his merits were evident even in the cavernous Adelphi. Wonderfully witty rhymes. Complex, surprising harmonies and a few good tunes. First-class story-telling. A willingness to take on subjects others would run a mile from: Sweeney Todd really is a very black tale indeed. A focus on drama and character rather than sugar-coated sentimentality or spectacle.
What I thought this one lacked was the subtlety in characterisation that you find in some of the others (like Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park and Passion).
The production (by Jonathan Kent) had its weaknesses as well. It was updated to the 1920s, for reasons not entirely clear (I wasn't aware they were still sentencing criminals to transportation after World War One), though it did mean they could bring the rival barber and hair-restorer salesman, Pirelli, on in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw. Sweeney's barber shop was atop a square structure which wheeled forward when required and turned on a revolve, which seemed cumbersome. The love interest Johanna had neither the looks nor the voice for the part (a harsh and screechy soprano). The boy Tobias was too quiet and tentative. Johanna at her window was wheeled on at the top of a metal staircase.
But there were some very good things too, apart from Staunton and Ball, including Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford. The ensemble were seen at the start engaged in all kinds of convincing drudgery (cleaning floors, hauling sacks of coal). And they narrated and commented from time to time from a first-floor gallery/gantry, looking down on the action: the people of London.