Sweeney Todd

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

If Go Compare are looking for someone new to play their irritating opera-singing mascot, Gio Compario, Jason Manford could be a shoo-in.

Last night, he made his official debut in the West End revival of Sweeney Todd as Adolfo Pirelli, a moustachioed singing Italian so comically stereotypical you half expect him to start flogging you Cornettos, if not insurance.

The corniness, of course, is the gag. Pirelli is an extravagant medicine-show man and as Manford hams it up, overacting and shamelessly stealing the scene, he is only doing precisely what this comic-relief role requires.

He’s got a decent tenor voice, too, as anyone who has seen his occasional duets with pal Alfie Boe will know. This is not stunt casting – or at least not *just* stunt casting – as Manford more than holds his own.

And that’s quite some achievement when you’re appearing alongside the impressive Michael Ball, who as the broodingly amoral demon barber slaughtering his customers, is a revelation for anyone who dismissed him as a cosy aunties’ favourite for his middle-of-the-road resumé to date.

For his part, Manford only has a couple of scenes to steal – he could have Doubled Up at a comedy club elsewhere in town had it not been for the curtain call – but it’s a credible, creditable performance – even if neither accent he’s called on to execute is entirely rock-solid.

Yet his is not the only funny turn in this bleakly funny yarn. Imelda Staunton, no stranger to jet-black comedy after her stint in Psychoville, is nothing short of excellent in her role as Mrs Lovett, the pie shop owner who reverses her fortunes after finding a fresh source of meat from her vengeful neighbour above. She’s part welcoming hostess, part cold-eyed accessory to the crimes, manipulating Todd into reciprocating her love. It’s a vital part as her split personality is shared by this whole grimly comic musical and Staunton delivers a beguiling, hilarious turn that’s glorious in its wickedness.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are as sharp as Todd’s lethal blades – witty, salacious and as contemporary now as when they were written an incredible 33 years ago. The murky staging adds to the chilling atmosphere and although some aspects, such as wardrobe, have been needlessly updated to the Twenties, the script and the mood remains resolutely Victorian.

John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou revel in their roles as a repugnant judge and his lickspittle beadle, and the band and ensemble, particularly Gillian Kirkpatrick as the schizoid beggar-prostitute, are joy. The only weak point is a romantic subplot involving the judge’s persecuted lock-in of an adopted daughter and her sailor suitor – both underpowered performances here – that can’t hope to be as intriguing as Todd’s murderous ways.

But it’s only a minor distraction from a bloody brilliant production of one of theatre’s best musicals.

  • Manford will play Pirelli – the role taken Sacha Baron Cohen in Tim Burton's 2007 film – until July 27, when the usual actor, Robert Burt, returns from a stint at Glyndebourne. And the production continues at the Adelphi until September 22. Click here for tickets

Review date: 6 Jul 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Adelphi Theatre

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