By Fiona Leckerman
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street takes residence in the Coliseum for a special celebratory run of Stephen Sondheim’s gruesome thriller Sweeney Todd. English National Opera have opened their doors and blooded the stage to mark the 85th birthday of the masterful composer and lyricist Sondheim.
The production which was first staged at the Lincoln Center for the New York Philharmonic in 2014, has been reprised by ENO, who together with The GradeLinnit Company have lured it across the Atlantic and in doing so have retained its star studded cast; the delectably devilish Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett and Bryn Terfel as a commanding yet damaged Sweeney Todd.
Billed as a semi-staged production, similar to a concert, the orchestra sits centre stage and by proxy placing Sondheim at its core.
The cast march on, each holding a music stand and placing their score in front of them, within the first few bars, these are dropped laconically to the floor and seconds later the stage is reconstructed, clothes are ripped to pieces, vases kicked over, backdrop exposed to reveal graffiti and a blooded red handprint.
The same red handprint is embossed on each chorus member, as a necklace, as a belt and even as a print on the back of conductor David Charles Abell’s back; a theatrical device to visually connect and mark the chorus who are all uniformly dressed in black.
The tone is set by this running theme of artifice versus reality which is equally effective and frustrating. What it gains is a knowing wink from the audience, letting us into the secret. It’s witty to see Mrs Lovett steel a chair from the cellist or the baton from the conductor, turning it into a comb.
It’s imaginative, inventive and refreshing to watch a drum become a work bench and a grand piano be turned upside down and transformed into a prop.
However, Sweeney Todd is a long musical and the joke wears thin, perhaps distracting from the emotional build up.
Todd, determined to avenge the death of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter Johanna by Judge Turpin (played with a menacing lasciviousness by Philip Quast), is a very dark, scary tale and Mrs Lovett’s character is humour enough without her prancing around pantomimically.
The strength of team Thompson and Terfel deserve a fully staged production to play in, especially on the Coliseum’s magnificent stage and it is hard not to wonder how much more electric and spin-tingling it could have been if director Lonny Price indulged our suspension of disbelief.
The pairing of Thompson and Terfel is a nice nod to ENO’s mission statement that seeks to widen Opera’s audience, with Sweeney Todd, which could be described as a musical and an opera, fitting well.
It’s above all a wonderful salute to Sondheim, where his chilling music and sardonic but humorous lyrics – who else can couple proclivities with insensitivities – makes for a disturbing yet frighteningly entertaining show, with throat slashing, human pie making characters at its helm.
The delicate love songs Johanna and Not While I’m Around are sublime as are the trysts between Lovett and Todd, none more so than A Little Priest.
There is no escaping the horror, red lights drip across the stage, claxons sound, chorus members unite to powerfully fill the Coliseum with the Sondheim sound, making this Sweeney Todd, a cut above.
Sweeney Todd runs until 12th April at ENO, The London Coliseum.