23 March 2012: Sweeney Todd, The Master and Margarita, After Miss Julie

Weekly review roundup: 23 March 2012

it was the second week in a row with three openings at close to four stars, which gives us a full six new shows at the top of the rankings and available this month (with some running much longer).


The overall winner was another macabre revival, though of more recent vintage than the last. Just a few weeks after the bloody ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore dazzled at the Barbican, Sweeney Todd, the dark Sondheim musical comedy about a Victorian barber-turned-serial-killer, opened with the strongest reviews since Matilda back in December.


The show pulled a straight 4.5-star average from eight reviewers, including five-stars from Michael Billington (Guardian, review), Sarah Hemming (FT, review), Dominic Maxwell (Times, review), as well as our hard-to-please reps from the blogging side of things, the West End Whingers (review).


Everyone began their reviews by stating that Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in the lead roles give career performances, making this a Sweeney Todd for the ages. Almost everyone agreed that the direction, by Jonathan Kent, was superb, getting the tricky balance of comedy and horror just right – except for Quentin Letts (Daily Mail), who may have been more queasy about the script itself than about any of Kent’s choices. Those who only gave four stars consistently flagged the same imperfections – a dropoff in pace in the second act, and a lack of depth in secondary characters who are given too much stage time (this is a cast of 30). But even those reviewers came down on the side of saying this version needed to be seen, thanks to Ball and Staunton. Runs to 22 Sept.


The Master and Margarita comes to the Barbican courtesy of Complicite and Simon McBurney – the team behind such powerhouse productions as A Disappearing Number, Shun-kin and A Dog’s Heart – as another projection-heavy, magical-realism-tinged show. This has pulled a straight four-star average so far, with five stars from the fairly cerebral Michael Coveney, but also fours from Libby Purves (Times) and Charles Spencer (Telegraph), and a three from Ian Shuttleworth (FT).


Using striking projections from their own in-house team, the adaptation of the Mikhail Bulgakov novel transforms the Barbican first into 1920s or 30s Moscow, then into a host of other worldly and otherworldly settings. Purves gave four stars, in what feels like a surprisingly unique formulation of ‘I loved it, but many might not’, saying “This is a wild, strange evening. I can imagine some losing patience with its first 100-minute section: starkly monochrome, philosophically and theologically unattuned to the 21st-century Western mind, and frankly confusing to anyone turning up with no idea of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel. Yet as the kaleidoscope of ideas, dreams and emotions resolves, it yields great riches.” (full review, Times sub required)


Shuttleworth, though, was impressed but not convinced, saying the production “cogently persuades you of the novel’s peculiar, compelling power, but ultimately does not convey it.” (full reviewRuns to April 17.


Finally, the Young Vic’s After Miss Julie pulled very close to a four-star average, with several heavy hitters giving four stars, including Lyn Gardner (Guardian) from whom it is a rare accolade. The 1888 Strindberg script Miss Julie, about a sexual power play perpetrated by a rich man’s daughter upon the family chauffeur, has been updated by writer Patrick Marber to the night of Labour’s election landslide in 1945, in an adaptation that premiered at the Donmar nine years ago. Gardner called this production “compulsively watchable”; “class war played out in the bedroom with “just the right balance of voyeurism and dissection.” Acting by the full cast of three – Kieran Bew (Reasons to be Pretty), Natalie Dormer as Julie and Polly Frame as the chauffeur’s cast-aside girlfriend – was “spot-on”. (full reviewRuns to April 7.

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