MUSICAL / A really close shave: Paul Taylor reviews the National's Sweeney Todd

WHEN Sondheim's Sweeney Todd first hit London 13 years ago, the design was in danger of upstaging the musical. Gazing at the huge iron gantries and mobile walkways of Eugene Lee's set, you kept thinking, 'Great, but when is the big chase scene?' It never came. Like all subsequent English productions, this spare, razor- sharp London revival by Declan Donnellan, in the Cottesloe, draws the audience into more intimate contact with the Grand Guignol grisliness and unsavoury farce, the throat slittings and the greedy, incognisant scoffing of human pies. The seven-strong chorus hold the flesh out on forks, temptingly, the public's proximity to the action rendering it a sitting target for the musical's accusatory, quasi-Brechtian stabs at social critique.

Indeed, people in the stalls may become conscious that, as they look up to the high platform where Todd's tonsorial parlour is positioned, they tilt their heads back in just the manner of his victims in the barber's chair. In a touch typical of the simple, fluid and, at times, dreamlike clarity of the staging, the perverted Judge (excellent Denis Quilley) who is the focus of Todd's revenge delivers a sentence of death on some poor youth while enthroned on this seat of his eventual undoing. Throughout, Donnellan uses the chorus as a key presence, having them cluster round Todd and lay supportive hands on his shoulder. Eerily, they persist in seeing him as a mythic hero and conveniently ignore the fact that in the course of his revenge on corrupt society, innocent folk are as likely as the wicked to end up as pie-filling.

Obsession, rather than social injustice, is the theme that most animates this work and Sondheim's superb score. To take one example: returning to London after 15 years in enforced exile, Todd discovers that his wife has been driven to her death and his daughter made a ward of court by the evil Judge. In a brilliant stroke to indicate the onset of abnormality, Sondheim has him displace his affections, singing a rapt song of loving reunion to the gleaming blades of his old razors. His intense absorption (so much more disturbing than rant) is reinforced by the fact that he doesn't even notice the parallel outpourings of Mrs Lovett, the pie-shop owner who is equally monothematic about him.

Alun Armstrong occasionally sings out of tune and lacks any of the sexual charisma that would make Mrs Lovett's long- standing crush plausible (which was not the case when Quilley played the part). He's an excellent actor, though, and with that knobbly face lit up with a sickly, brooding monomania, he has no difficulty in keeping you gripped. Among a strong cast, Adrian Lester is in beautiful voice as the young romantic sailor, and Barry James makes a strikingly repulsive Beadle. Definitive is the only word to sum up Julia McKenzie's Mrs Lovett. Under a cockade of green feathers that looks like a neglected pot plant, she gives a hilarious, chilling demonstration of a woman who'd like to think she was a respectable, sentimental old softie, at heart, even while running a human pie shop. Gizzard slittin' good.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea