Sunday 5 April 2015

Sweeney Todd - ENO @ The Coliseum

Sweeney Todd ENO The Coliseum

Sweeney Todd may be a show that mixes dark humour and horror, but the PR shots (above) for this semi-staged production of the show with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson are laughably bad and terrifying only for their similarity to waxwork dummies. Sadly, the show itself follows suit.

As you'd expect from such a renowned opera singer, Terfel sings Todd like some Wagnerian anti-hero. His musicality is admirable, but he pulls the orchestra around with unnecessary swells and rubato turning a tightly woven horror drama into a Romantic melodrama. His booming voice is surely threatening, to the point that he overpowers everyone and everything on the stage. In dialogue, meanwhile, his deadpan delivery is devoid of dramatic skill - the climactic final scene is more amusing than anything. This is a performance that lacks any subtlety and, most criminally of all, fails to scare.

As Mrs Lovett, Emma Thompson is Terfel's exact opposite. She scuttles around the stage like a pantomime dame, as if performing in a totally different show. Her performance is full of comedic quirks, but it's too overblown in comparison to the rest of the cast. Musically, however, she struggles. When not speak-singing she honks through the more lyrical moments and has difficulty keeping in time with the orchestra - particularly with the rhythms and pauses of "Worst Pies In London". This weakness is only exacerbated next to Terfel; the two simply don't pair well together.

There are moments in Sondheim's score, though, that do lend themselves to a more operatic delivery. As Anthony, Matthew Seadon-Young sings a superb "Johanna" in a lyrical, youthful tenor full of honest feeling. It's a brilliant interpretation and a major highlight of this production. As Johanna herself, Katie Hall sings in a sweet soprano that's thankfully far from the usual squeaky casting. Rival barber Pirelli is, of course, an operatic joke, but here the joke is on the rest of the cast courtesy of John Owen-Jones. He sings with speed, clarity and vocal dexterity for maximum comedic value. Elsewhere, Rosalie Craig plays a haunting, twitching Beggar Woman, Jack North's Tobias is genuinely chilling and the chorus are well used with tight harmonies and choreography.

It's also a joy to watch the orchestra on stage, conducted by David Charles Abell; musically at least this production is outstanding. Yet what begins semi-staged soon becomes much more, the opening all performed with a wry wink. On the one hand this leads to some great comedy moments in and around the orchestra. On the other, the graffiti backdrops add a forced sense of modernism and the staging shows its limits in the dramatic second half especially.

It begs the question: rather than this halfway house, why not just do a fully staged version? As it stands, despite an outstanding secondary cast, this production is ultimately bloodless.


Watch: Sweeney Todd runs at the Coliseum until 12th April.