Sweeney Todd is a popular piece at the moment, perhaps due to the themes of discontent and inequality in London. There have recently been critically-appraised performances in Twickenham and London’s oldest pie-and-mash shop in Tooting. But the ENO offers something spectacular and brutal on a different scale for this tale of a cut-throat barber driven by revenge for his tragic wife and stolen daughter, supported by the pie-baking Mrs Lovett downstairs.
This tone is summed up in the opening number after the chorus has sat down behind the orchestra which is set into the stage, and the main cast has stood behind music stands along the front. Partway through The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd, the cast slams down their scores, rips up their formal dress and knocks flowery props to the floor. The front-and-centre piano is thrown upside down to act as a minimalistic prop rather than a vehicle of ‘proper’ classical music.
This is no safe semi-staged production, instead combining the impressive talents of the ENO orchestra, various well-known West End singers (many from the Les Mis ranks, including Philip Quast, John Owen-Jones and Katie Hall), the vast bass-baritone voice of operatic stalwart Bryn Terfel, and the comedic goddess Emma Thompson.
In fact, although the entire cast cannot be faulted – and a special mention must go to Owen-Jones for his hilarious but equally sinister Italian/Irish Pirelli – it is the chemistry between the central pair that makes this production so special. While Terfel broods, his deep voice filling the entire Coliseum, Thompson sparkles around him with a rawer voice that encapsulates Mrs Lovett’s supposedly innocent self-interest. She has many moments of comic relief which lighten the mood of this naturally dark and sinister piece, without detracting from the overall mood.
The one thing this semi-staged show lacks is an intricate barber’s chair complete with trapdoor – seeing the deceased walk away from the chair after being killed is not quite the same – but it makes up for this in inventiveness, usually with Thompson flair. For example, she steals the conductor’s baton as a prop in By The Sea (luckily he has another), steals a double bassist’s stool for the barber, and gets close to some audience members in the first row. She owns the stage throughout, and you get the impression she is delighted to be bringing this New York production to a home audience, albeit briefly.
Despite the prowess of Thompson, Terfel and everyone else who joined them on stage, it was conductor David Charles Abell’s show. His mixture of cheekiness, especially when interacting with the actors, and downright control was assuring and he more than competently took the story on its twisted journey. It is a thing of specialness that the ENO can bring all these wonderful creative minds together to create such a bold and winning production. It is just a shame that this city is only privy to it for such a short time, especially as there is No Place Like a London theatre.