Nobody can say that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba can’t write a song and their 1984 concept album-turned-musical is full of good numbers, a couple of which were big chart hits. Directed by Laurence Connor, this major revival boasts some wonderful performances. Tim Howar brings a powerful rock sound as the maverick chess master Freddie Trumper, Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke are both fantastic as the female leads, and there’s impressive work from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal as the men behind the scenes at a chess tournament that pits the USA against the USSR. The star of the show, as the Russian player, Anatoly Sergievksy, who defects to the West, is undoubtedly Michael Ball. Giving an impressively understated performance while belting out the numbers shows a performer of upmost confidence and technical skill. Ball is the master here, even if this chess game isn’t quite worth playing.
With music for the orchestra, the main theme, played during matches, is beautiful but adds little tension to an already wafer-thin story. There just isn’t enough in Richard Nelson’s book to hold attention, despite the backdrop of the Cold War and machinations of the Russian delegation. Connor tries hard with a barrage of video screens that ultimately only prove distracting. But the biggest problem is the writing for many voices. The ENO’s own chorus adds prestige to the event, but they seem lost – underused and with Tim Rice’s lyrics barely audible. As chess travels the world (well, Merano and Bangkok), attempts to add local colour end up pretty risible and Stephen Mear’s choreography surprisingly lacklustre. It all has to rest on the love triangle between Anatoly and the women in his life. There are moments when the cast, especially Ball, make this work, but the whole piece feels so slim that it’s more like a game of draughts.
Until 2 June 2018
Arriving in London from rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd is the must-see show of the summer. Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, certainly his most famous work, it’s a musical that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is approachable.
Kent and his team make the most of each show-stopping number: almost to the production’s detriment as the evening is in danger of turning into a collection of hits rather than flowing as the excellent book by Hugh Wheeler intends it to. To be fair this really isn’t Kent’s fault – the audience response is rapturous, the atmosphere fantastic.
There is plenty to applaud. Michael Ball is remarkable in the title role. His transformation into the demon barber of Fleet Street makes him unrecognisable. More to the point, he gets to show what a fine actor he can be and remind us what a great voice he has. He does justice to Sondheim’s challenging score and embraces Sweeney’s tragic predicament in a stark manner that avoids camp.
Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, is a role to kill for and Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun with it. Her comedy is spot on and her voice strong. In love with Sweeney, Lovett’s descent into crime is swift, inevitable and wickedly funny, giving the production great pace. Staunton’s is a cracking performance that never slows and continually impresses.
Several recent productions of Sweeney Todd have been performed by opera companies reverent towards the score and resourced in a manner you might miss here – the chorus seems small and at times unsatisfying. There’s also a suspicion that Anthony Ward’s set feels a little lost on the large Adelphi stage; Sweeney’s London hardly teems with people, even if Mark Henderson’s lighting design creates atmosphere in abundance. But such cavils certainly won’t stop you enjoying the evening. This isn’t the perfect production of Sweeney Todd but it’s within a whisker of it.
Until 22 September 2012
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 23 March 2012 for The London Magazine