We were lucky enough to see the final performance (of a short run of 14) of the ENO’s ‘Sweeney Todd’, a production first performed at the Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. Ported over for this show were Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett) and Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), with the addition of Matthew Seadon-Young as Anthony, Katie Hall as Johanna, John Owen-Jones as Pirelli, Jack North as Tobias, Rosalie Craig as the Beggar Woman, and Alex Gaumond as the Beadle.
At the start it seems as if we are going to see a straight concert performance, but this seems a waste of a good cast and a vibrant, beautiful venue, so as Terfel and co throw down their scores, destroy items on the stage, and hand out props from an ENO trunk, we pitch into Sondheim’s powerful score with some style, and stuffy concert formality is pushed aside for banners, graffiti, and bloody handprints (the conductor even sports one on the back of his shirt, visible through his ripped black jacket).
Whether the production is a success or not generally depends on whether the balance of darkness and comedy is depicted correctly – and in Thompson there is a saucy playfulness around a hard interior which is quite happy to condone and encourage mass murder to encourage the pie trade. In Terfel’s magnificent Sweeney we see an icy resolve for revenge, not just on the men who violated his wife and stole his daughter, but on everyone who needs a shave. Truly there are no closer shaves to be found on Fleet Street.
Sondheim’s score, too, is towering, walking the line between musical and opera without effort – so that one of opera’s greatest bass-baritones fits well in the role alongside a musical comedy actress and a baritone who has played most of the major roles in musicals without having formal voice training. Owen-Jones may be slightly wasted in the role of Pirelli, but he is fun, while Philip Quast is hissably repellent as the judge who finds himself lusting after his adopted daughter, who ‘looks lovely in her white muslin dress’. Absent from London stages since La Cage Aux Folles six years ago, he’s welcome back in the UK after a run of successes in his native Australia, and it is a privilege to hear him sing the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Terfel.
Thompson has two comedy high points in ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and ‘By The Sea’ (with a handy spray bottle to evoke the briny), while her duet with Terfel, ‘A Little Priest’ sizzles with menace against audience, orchestra and unsuspecting pie eaters alike. In a red outfit with slashed collar and headscarf, she totters between industrious baker and lovestruck widow, and she has great chemistry with her Sweeney.
Thumbs up for this production’s Anthony and Johanna too, with their ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ song of young love, and their eventual look of horror at the mouth of hell in the bakehouse’s final carnage. And Tobias, the young lad who we first see as Pirelli’s assistant, a cheeky chap with a fast mouth, becomes a broken bird, and perhaps his story is the saddest of all.