In 1973, Sondheim chanced upon Chris Bond's version of the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street. Six years later, Sweeney Todd - A Musical Thriller opened on Broadway in Sondheim's version adapted from Bond's original by Hugh Wheeler. Bond himself revived the musical at the Half Moon Theatre in 1985 and he's back again on a slightly larger scale.
Beneath the plot elements of Jacobean tragedy, Bond's original was a melodrama and here he returns the piece to that convention. It's an intriguing idea but partly thanks to an evidently short rehearsal period, other than restoring some of the humour, the gains are negligible. The characters in the musical are two-dimensional only in the sense that they are driven by overwhelming obsessions of revenge, lust, romantic love, etc, but the score is so rich and dramatic that they become suffused with colour and detail. Reducing the cast to stock melodrama characters cuts against Sondheim's achievement and ends up looking wilful.
Nicky Croydon is striking as a larky Mrs Lovett, Todd's partner-in-crime who makes meat pies out of his impeccably shaved victims. Her voice is hard and diamond bright and her diction exemplary, but as for her character, it's Carry On Baking. You keep expecting her to nudge him in the ribs and exclaim "Ooh! You are a caution!" Darryl Knock's rich baritone is a huge bonus in the role of Anthony. The darkness in his voice gives the character a seriousness that solidifies someone who can come across as a reedy weed. Unfortunately, Ray Shell in the title role doesn't have the same power and he's not helped by the rickety Dickensian set. Chasing Anthony out of the shop, he looks distinctly uncomfortable charging down the stairs, which then deflates the highly-charged atmosphere leading into his epiphany - "I will have vengeance". This magnificent soul-baring attack on the audience needs to come as a shock. It's the core of the character and the piece and Todd has to command the stage, but Bond's awkward split focus blurs the moment and the climax goes for nothing.
It is sadly indicative of the staging as a whole. Seeing the return to old-fashioned, generalised, musical comedy values in a work of this quality is dispiriting. The original cast album offers the depth, drama and passion missing from this revival.
n To 22 June. Booking: 0171-602 7856