Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton shine in Jonathan Kent's effective production of Stephen Sondheim's dark musical.
Ball is almost unrecognizable as the "demon barber of Fleet Street," with his dark hair slicked back, his skin bleached out by the lighting, his eyes burning with hate. Vocally he's superb, but while he's suitably brooding, emotionally isolated and intense as a man cruelly wronged -- only coming to life when caressing his treasured razors -- he doesn't fully convince as someone rendered psychopathic by their thirst for vengeance.
Staunton supplies both the heart and humour of the piece. She is wonderful as quirky pie-maker Mrs Lovett, with her nicotine chuckle and her voice coarse and cracked in places. She combines an endearingly maternal cushiony coziness with a cold-eyed pragmatism. There is real poignancy in the desperate way she clings to the unmoved Sweeney, in her small seaside dreams, and her touching belief they will come true.
The actress has an ability to wring laughter out of the tiniest glance or gesture. If she occasionally seems in danger of overplaying the comic elements of the character, she always pulls back in time. She and Ball's playful one-upmanship on "A Little Priest" is one of the high-points of the production.
There's some decent support, notably from John Bowe, whose menacing, self-flagellating Judge Turpin is a truly unpleasant creation. While Lucy May Barker's Johanna is sweet of face and voice, her character gets a little lost in the murk.
Kent's transportation of the musical from the original Dickensian setting to the London of the 1930s is very effective. The Depression-era backdrop is entirely in keeping with the sense of desperation that permeates the piece, the hunger and want, men living transient lives in shabby quarters, the social inequalities pushing people into actions they might not otherwise condone. It's all made to feel subtly but disturbingly pertinent.