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Sweeney Todd - 8 October 2011
10/09/11 @ 06:29:57 am, Categories: General, 1854 words   English (US)

Some of you seem to love our little travel talk or our travel “nightmares”. No such thing this time. Yes, we both independently circled London with our planes for some time and flights were slightly delayed even before this, but that’s usual.

Should you remember the tour, you might remember that one of us (aka Kerstin) managed to leave the sat nav at home. Well, who needs a sat nav, if you are travelling the roads of England and Wales for two weeks? Exactly. We got ourselves a car for the Chichester week to get around a bit. Now, you might guess, what the last phone calls between Julia and Kerstin went like (J: Don’t forget the sat nav! K: No, I WON’T! J: go and check again. K: I don’t have to, I know I packed it. J: Are you really 100% sure? And so on….). Well, and she did indeed pack it, she even packed both (aka, the one bought in Birmingham in June and the old one).

So everything was perfect, until we were almost there and the sat nav said the battery was low, although it was stuck into the lighter socket. Shortly after that message it went dead and could not be resurrected again. Eeeeek. Luckily we know the region around here well enough and managed to find the Travelodge for our first night without trouble, but what would we do for the rest of the week, if our sat nav would not charge?

Then the next morning and with daylight, we could see that our car had a separate socket for sat navs and stuff like it. WE plugged it in and tada! It was charging again. Phew.

Stage Door:
We already knew that Michael is his own chauffeur for the Sweeney Todd run, but it was still weird to see him drive up himself. We were quite impressed with his reverse parking skills, especially when you have 20 people watching you drive a big car. Hats off. AS far as stage doors go, this was semi-crowded, but there’s a lot of space so it was not too bad. It also seemed as if there was an invisible line at a certain point that no one crossed, so he could walk the last few yards undisturbed. For some reason we felt he looked more different with this smaller beard than he did at Kismet. If you don’t hear him talk and don’t watch closely, you would not know it was him. Naturally we do look closely, it has to be said. Appropriately stage dooring seemed quieter than in Hairspray days. Most people there knew what was to come and as Andrew so aptly put it: “This is very different from Hairspray!” We saw Imelda Staunton arrive as well. She was on the phone. No one except a group of autograph hunters disturbed her.

It’s good when there is a bigger crowd on the first day of a trip. It gives you the opportunity to get used to the shock of seeing him in the flesh so close after such a long wait. And other people having him sign things and pose for photos you can lean back, enjoy the view without having to kick yourself afterwards for not speaking to him when you had the chance and were all alone. Plus it was not raining. A good start.

Everything went smoothly after that (almost). We collected the keys for our really nice holiday flat (YAY! We can pretend to be living in England! We even have a washing machine! ) And we only almost missed our first performance…it was a close – wait for it – shave! Haha. We simply underestimated the parking situation before the matinee (there is this huge car par for 900 cars right in the back of the theatre) and had to head for the estate agents to collect said keys. When we returned to the car park there was mayhem! What with shoppers and two theatre with matinees 900 spaces can be too few indeed. We circled and circled and the clock kept ticking. 1:50 pm, 2:00 pm, 2:05 pm – the matinee would begin at 2:15 and we really, really did not want t be late for our first show. We wouldn’t know if they would have let us in before the interval. But then: RELIEF! A car left and we managed to get into the theatre just in time. And completely freaked out of course. Perfect mood….

And now off to the reason we are here for: Michael Ball and Sweeney Todd at the Festival Theatre in Chichester.

Sweeney Todd:
Sweeney Todd is the story of a barber with his beautiful wife, who is charged for a crime he did not commit by a jealous judge who desires the beautiful wife. Benjamin Barker (that’s Sweeney Todd’s real name) is condemned to serve a life sentence in Australia. The play sets in when he returns home, having escaped the prison island to search for his wife and daughter.

He now goes under the name of Sweeney Todd. When he returns home he finds out by the owner of a run down pie shop (Mrs. Lovett) that his wife had been raped publicly by the judge and then took arsenic as she could not cope with the shame. The judge took away his child and raised her as his warden. Todd wants revenge, Mrs. Lovett has kept his razor blades and so the story unfurls until he gets to cut the judges throat.
Many a men dies on his barber chair providing the filling for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Her business is booming and she is madly in love with deadly Mr. Todd. The only tiny detail Mrs. L kept from him was the fact that his beloved wife survived the arsenic, but has lost most her mind from it. She’s still wandering the streets as a beggar woman, unrecognizable. In the heart-breaking finale he kills her not knowing who she is and only recognizes her when it’s too late. Mrs. Lovett doesn’t survive this and Sweeney who has been found out being a serial killer by Mrs. Lovett’s shop assistant embraces death readily, when said shop assistant kills him.
There is a very small happy end though: He comes very close to killing his daughter (who is in disguise) too, but she escapes him and runs away with a nice young sailor. Phew.

Our thoughts:
We have never seen Sweeny Todd so we did not know what to expect apart from “Not While I’m Around”, “Pretty Women”, lots of throat-cutting and Sweeney Todd dying in the end. We knew it would be emotional and not happy-go-lucky, what we did not expect however was the emotional impact this show would have. It’s as compelling as it is brutal. It has hilarious moments and those of utter despair. The score is amazing. Everyone on stage was perfect. The set is fantastic and so clever, the (invisible) orchestra is great. Now we know why this has been Michael’s ambition for many, many years.

First things first: Imelda and Michael received a very enthusiastic standing ovation after both shows on Saturday. The audience loved the show, the evening crowd seemed even more delighted than the matinee one.

Many have said that the director should not have changed the era the show is set in (from Victorian to the 1940s). Yes okay, the lingo might be Dickens, but the story itself is timeless and surely the misanthropical age of war and industry goes very well with the hell in which Sweeney Todd lives.

Lots of metal on the stage, cold and rusty, people in need, many people no one cares for, no one will and misery are not bound to a certain period sadly. WE felt this was rather fitting. And as today directors insist on staging Mozart operas in Ikea furniture I am sure we can cope with a Victorian musical being transported to the 1940s.

We know it has been said countless times before, but Michael is indeed virtually unrecognizable. Straight dark hair, a beard and even his body language is different. This should not surprise anyone. An actor who can play a woman to perfection can play anyone. This man is so angry and so sad that it breaks your heart. In every move you see barely contained fury. In most scenes he does very little indeed, just sit or stand watching in disgust everything around him and he is eminating such dark menace that it’s breathtaking at times.

He scared the hell out of us to be perfectly honest. The contrast between Imelda Staunton’s tiny frame next to him being so tall and muscular is exquisite. This woman is so brave. It seemed like she was living with an aching tiger constantly ready for the kill and the tiniest mistake could trigger an outbreak you would not survive. She manages to calm him, but only just. A doomed couple with death waiting for both of them. This was always tangible.

The one before the last song before the interval is called Epiphany and it does what it says on the tin. For this one song alone he deserves another Olivier. Such brutal and cold or hot anger, such despair, a real demon, a real human, it was literally breathtaking to watch.

Mercifully this is followed by one of the funniest duets we’ve ever seen on a stage. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton are a match made in heaven. Both with perfect comic timing of course. They make up a plan to use Sweeney’s victims as fillings for the pie and come up with different flavours of for example priests, lawyers or generals. It’s wonderfully disgusting and evil. Great fun.

So this piece is not too gloomy, which was surprising. The character of Mrs. Lovett has a dry wit, which has the audience laughing out loud. Naturally everyone embraces a laugh gratefully after all the horror and sadness, but the inevitable end comes and quickly. 2,5 hours fly by in a whirlwind of horror and delight. So we watched Michael die on stage. A very new experience, but as it is his salvation it’s not too bad. The problem is witnessing his heartbreaking when he holds the body of his wife, died by his hand. He’s completely shattered, so vulnerable. And the voice, oh the voice. You don’t even recognize him when he’s speaking. He sounds like a completely different person, but when he is singing…. Such a variety from utmost tenderness to soaring money notes, very dark and rich, very intimate too. Some moments very reminiscent to Alone Together at the Donmar ten years ago. Raw and honest, no kitsch, no frills, just perfection.

This show took a long time coming for him but it’s well worth the wait. He is Sweeney Todd and we cannot wait to be back next week, to be chilled to the bone and touched at the heart. Roll on Monday.


On the road with Michael Ball.
October 2011
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