A feeling of bewilderment befell the Coliseum’s auditorium as, happy as Larry, Emma Thompson, Bryn Terfel and the remainder of Sweeney Todd’s cast strolled onto stage and propped books onto stands, ready to present a 170 minute concert. Concert? Concert my eye! I want a bloody spectacle thank you very much! Fortunately before I had a funny turn, said books were thrown away, a piano overturned, the formality disposed of and Thompson had her sleeves ripped off. Reminds me of my last shindig – fantastic!
Lonny Price’s production, first staged in New York last year, is an interesting one and particularly so because of the unorthodox set, housed as it is thickly amongst the orchestra. The story itself is profoundly rebellious and unconventional, particularly within the historical context. The mid-19th century West was extraordinarily centred on the semblance of ‘family’ (just look at the wonderfully shocked reaction to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House upon its release) and this is all but destroyed in Sweeney Todd as any sort of hopeful reunion is shattered. Further, at a time when religion was the only accepted means to exist, we are presented with some rather horrifying images that directly counteract the idea of what it apparently is to be a ‘good’ Christian, particularly with the rather large amount of murder and cannibalism on offer. Yum.
James Noone’s totally stripped back set, bar propaganda littering the back of the stage and scene-setting drapes on boxes at either side of the audience’s entrance to the action, combines the generally anti-establishment ‘who cares?’ feel and a lovely nod to the imagination that is in many of ENO’s productions. It’s different and I appreciate it fully, especially as the orchestra and their instruments of wonder are lovingly and often humorously used as props throughout (Thompson steals one of their chairs before later taking the conductor’s baton to ‘cut’ Terfel’s locks. Jack North’s Toby too rather ingeniously minces some ‘flesh’ through a trombone).
There’s tragedy here but there’s no sense of fear. I imagined Mrs Lovett’s manner to be rather similar to that of an escaped convict; her actions inspired by a dangerous obsession not too dissimilar to that of Myra Hindley. Thompson is fantastic but perhaps doesn’t capture her character quite as fully as I expected. Terfel’s towering presence and vocals cause ripples, however there’s never any clear sense of whose character is leading whom. Is Lovett a mastermind psychopath or is she blinded by her lover’s search for happiness – one that doesn’t involve her?
Katie Hall’s Johanna sounds exquisite, especially as she sings one of my favourites, ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’. There’s not all that much interaction between her and Matthew Seadon-Young’s Anthony but the latter’s longing for his love is true and convincing. Both young actors momentously hold their own against the more experienced leads.
I expected more of a ‘show’ from this epic musical – aesthetically speaking, though Noone’s stripped back vision adds an exciting spin and Price makes great use of the space. The ensemble, much like in ENO’s other productions appear as a frightening force, ready to launch an attack.
Sweeney Todd is chaotic and innovative but as continuously fresh as ENO. I really would like to see some brand spanking new pieces presented on the glorious Coliseum stage.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is playing at London Coliseum until 12 April. For tickets and more information, see the ENO website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.