Entertainment & Arts

Sweeney Todd: Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton impress

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Media captionMichael Ball and Imelda Staunton after their performance in the West End

Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton have wowed the West End with their murderous performances in Stephen Sondheim's bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd.

The pair won a standing ovation when the show opened at the Adelphi Theatre on Tuesday night.

"I had a dream to do this six years ago," Michael Ball told the BBC.

"Three years ago I asked Imelda if she'd do it. And here we are - we've opened in the West End. I'm like a dog with two tails."

Ball plays demonic barber Sweeney Todd with Imelda Staunton as pie-making Mrs Lovett.

Directed by Jonathan Kent, the show has transferred to the capital after a successful run in Chichester last year.

'A dark night'

Among the celebrity guests at the opening night was Jason Manford, who will take on the role of Italian barber Pirelli in July.

Manford admitted it was "something I've never done before".

"So I'm a bit nervous, but in a good way."

First staged in 1979, Sondheim's musical tells the story of Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, who vows revenge after Judge Turpin (John Bowe) rapes his wife.

As he plots to murder the judge, Sweeney Todd turns serial killer, killing patrons of his barber shop by slitting their throats with a razor.

His landlady, Mrs Lovett, becomes complicit in the scheme, using the flesh of his victims as fillings in her meat pies.

Tim Burton's 2007 film of the musical, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, was nominated for three Oscars.

Having won a string of five star reviews in Chichester, the West End transfer is slicing out a similar path.

Michael Billington's Guardian review said: "If one were mean, I suppose one could say... that the show tapers off from perfection in the first act to mere brilliance in the second."

Audience reaction

Describing Sweeney Todd as "the King Lear of musical theatre" , The Arts Desk's Judith Flanders saves her most effusive praise for Imelda Staunton "whom, theatre-goers have long known, is a Living National Treasure, who ought to be preserved by law."

Image caption Critics said Ball was 'virtually unrecognisable ' in the role

Giving the show four stars, The Daily Mail's Quentin Letts admitted he left the Adelphi "impressed but sickened."

"Sweeney Todd is a dark night," he warned. "Imelda Staunton deploys all her comic talent as Mrs Lovett to try to alleviate the tale's grisliness."

"I haven't done a big show like this since Guys and Dolls in 1996-7, so this is overdue," Staunton said after the performance.

"Hopefully we're doing it as honestly and as darkly and as funnily as we can."

Michael Ball said he enjoyed the way audiences reacted to the on-stage blood-letting.

"Tonight for the first time they clapped when I killed the judge," he observed.

"On one bloodthirsty matinee in Chichester - when I was singing a love song and cutting throats - they were clapping every person I did!"

Sweeney Todd is at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, London, until 22 September.

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