Show Wars - 15th September 2012

Inspired by Stylist Magazine's Book Wars feature and her own theatre going, in this week’s blog Emily compares the musicals Sweeney Todd and Matilda.

I've had a musical theatre romp this week. A little late on board, I've finally caught up with Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi and Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre. Both being successful transfers – Sweeney Todd transferred from Chichester and Matilda from its RSC debut in Stratford – I've had sufficient time to get excited about them, particularly following their nearly uniformly rave reviews. And luckily I was not disappointed; both productions swept me off my theatrical feet! 

I've been asked, 'Would I recommend Matilda/Sweeney Todd?' and my answer has been a consistent, ‘Yes; you'd be hard pressed not to find something in either that you'd love.'

My initial sensations of lust for both productions arrived before hearing a single note. The Adelphi offers incoming-audiences the thrill of exposed brick on the back wall of the theatre, and the immediacy of a cast onstage. In an almost Brechtian fashion, the storytelling begins from the moment you take your seat. The Cambridge's chalk board scribbles and huge, boldly fonted letter blocks are another feast for the eyes; a truly family-friendly experience, perfect for the inevitable hoards of impressionable first-time theatre goers. The friendly stewards and doodled smiling faces on the walls say 'Come on in…' – a really important step for theatres in attracting, and keeping, new audiences.  

I know the Sweeney Todd score reasonably well, but my listening experiences of Matilda so far have been through informal encounters with other people's musical collections. I was impressed by Tim Minchin's music, which for me had a little Sondheim-meets-Stiles and Drewe, equipped with witty quips and playful word play. There is so much to keep you engaged in his score and lyrics, and more to discover, I'm sure, on a second or third listen. 

Stephen Sondheim's proven recipe of intellectually stimulating libretto was worked hard by the fierce ensemble, and the impossible not to mention Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton duo. I knew already that Michael Ball was good - but I didn't know he was this versatile. He didn't drop a shot, and Imelda was the perfect side-kick, feeding off and fertilizing Ball's Sweeney Todd (who had a little Ricky Gervais about him, I must admit…). 

A scene from Sweeney Todd. Source:

Where Sweeney Todd impresses through gritty performances and a perfect combination of funny and serious, it is the energised choreography of Matilda that maintains the high octane energy levels, alongside the 'pinch yourself because those kids really are that talented and they're still barely 10' sensation which is carried throughout the show too. I have a penchant for swings on stage, and the honesty, simplicity and truth in the song 'When I Grow Up' gave me genuine goose pimples, and that number was my easy favourite across the two shows.

The swings in Matilda. Source: Matilda's charm makes it an unmissable production, but it is stand-out performances from Ball and Staunton and, more importantly, Sweeney Todd’s 22nd September expiry date that make it a must see, now…

- Emily