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
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us