The musical thriller Sweeney Todd is a late season treat at the Chichester Festival Theatre this year, bringing to an end a season that has seen a charming revival of She Loves Me at the Minerva Theatre and a successful outing for Singin in the Rain on the main stage, which will transfer to the Palace Theatre in February. Sweeney is, surprisingly, only the fourth Stephen Sondheim musical that the Chichester Festival have tackled in their almost 50 year history, and this production, directed by Jonathan Kent, is already mooted for a West End run, possibly at the Adelphi Theatre. Sondheim’s Sweeney, with book by Hugh Wheeler, is one of his better known musicals, having enjoyed a relatively recent film version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, along with regular stage revivals, including John Doyle’s actor-musician production in London and New York, and Lee Blakeley’s sumptious production at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris earlier this year.

Sweeney’s story is one of revenge and how an honest man is driven mad by grief and an overwhelming desire for revenge. Michael Ball as Chichester’s Sweeney is almost unrecognisable – with big broody eyes and a beard – it is only when he smiles during a rare moment for him of light relief that he briefly reveals his trademark dimples. Ball is a sinister and brooding Todd, unpredictable and scary, with a big broad belt and sexy leather chair to boot. It is difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the transformation from his last role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray to Sweeney Todd with such panache.As the antithesis to Sweeney, Mrs Lovett is the cheery, chatty and amoral shopkeeper who would like to be more than merely a landlady to Todd. Imelda Staunton’s Lovett starts off as a rather dour, sinister lady rather than the warm-hearted and comic foil for the darkness of Sweeney that is often portrayed. She initiates a business arrangement with Todd and then plays the game to her own ends, gradually hinting at her hidden feelings for the barber and being transformed both in appearance and character in the second half when business is flourishing.

Anthony Ward has designed a clever and multi-purpose three-tier set for the Chichester main auditorium that enables chorus onlookers to look down on the action from above, and for Sweeney’s barber’s shop to appear complete with a handy waste disposal shoot to send his victims to be made into Mrs Lovett’s pies. Sight lines are slightly restricted from the sides at times – as is often the case in Chichester – and no doubt both set and indeed chorus will be augmented for Todd’s future London life. Perhaps they should up the ante with the amount of fake blood too, which was a little sparse at times.

Sweeney’s supporting characters are strongly cast, with John Bowe emphasising the two sides of Judge Turpin – who has wronged Sweeney by taking his daughter Johanna as his charge – he is bumbling and pleasant, but hiding an inner disgust and self loathing, revealed in a self flagelation scene. Luke Brady is full of hope and the wonders of young love as Anthony, with Lucy May Barker portraying the girl who is almost out of his reach. Both actors fulfil the earlier promise shown in their roles in recent West End productions ofThe Fantasticks and Spring Awakening respectively. Gillian Kirkpatrick as the Beggar Woman is almost the social conscience of the piece at times, observing the action throughout, and when Sweeney kills her and subsequently discovers who she really was, it is a truly tragic and powerful moment. Rival barber Pirelli is played with comic vivacity by Robert Burt, while James McConville makes his mark as a sweet and young Tobias, determined to protect Mrs Lovett from Todd at all costs.

Sweeney Todd has often attracted the question ‘Is it an opera or a musical?’ and Sondheim once answered this by stating that it is an opera when played in an opera house and a musical when played in a theatre. I have to admit that, at times, I missed the vocal richness of an operatic chorus (although Chichester’s chorus produced some great work and really went for it in their ensemble numbers), or, dare I say it, of a Bryn Terfel in the lead role. The ‘internalness’ of the Todd/Lovett relationship that Kent has emphasised during at least the first half of quite a dark production hinders the storytelling at times too, with Ball and Staunton needing to recreate more clearly the onstage chemistry that they exhibited in real life while hosting this year’s re-energised Olivier Awards. But these are minor quibbles in what is surely a classy production of an extremely powerful and moving piece of musical theatre which will surely be around for a good while yet.