Monday 13 April 2015

Come and Visit Your Good Friend Sweeney

Review: Sweeney Todd - English National Opera, London Coliseum.

Sweeney Todd
Dontcha hate it when you're enjoying a show, but the rest of the audience are clearly enjoying it more? Or, more accurately, when the rest of the audience are making it clear that they're enjoying it more? Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum was a good show, but a standing ovation? What are the audience going to do when they see something really great?

I've seen quite a few Sweeney's in my time, both professional and amateur. The best two were probably the version starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton at Chichester in 2011 (later transferred to the Adelphi in London, where I saw it) and The Royal Opera House production of 2003.

Sweeney ToddThe ENO production comes in behind these, but not so very far behind. The most notable feature is that it's 'semi-staged'. This is probably its biggest fault. Sweeney's music and lyrics are among the best of the twentieth century, and stand up easily to concert performance and to recording. On the other hand, the sheer gruesomeness of the razors, the chair, the oven and much more really do lend the story to a full staging. Even the most parsimonious amateur productions try to make some attempt at realism with these aspects.

In being semi-staged, this production fell between the two stools - and worse than that, it opened by deliberately emphasizing the point. Throughout, the entire orchestra is on stage (impressive both visually and aurally) and the show opens with the cast lining up in front of music stands to sing, at which I felt a certain disappointment - but then came the twist. Midway through the opening number, the cast rebel, throw aside their music and stands, kick over some unnecessary set decoration and overturn the unconvincing grand piano to make it into a rostrum as they transform the stage into something more dynamic.

The point seems to be that we don't want this fusty concert staging, we want a full production! I quite agree, but it's a shame that this revolution can only deliver semi-staging. This is Liberal Democrats raging against the Tories, before pusillanimously adding, but let's not go as far as Labour.

That said, some of the staging was very effective. Todd's chair didn't deliver his victims down a chute to the bakehouse; he simply covered their faces with a cloth and let them walk quietly away, which worked fine. I've certainly seen it done worse: an amateur production where victims had to do the 'walking downstairs behind the desk' trick. Ultimately though, the limitations of the staging, particularly in the final scenes, meant that for me the tension did not build quite as well as it usually does.

The big production numbers were generally well choreographed, the best of them being the Act II opener, More Hot Pies, which worked to a climax of Mrs Lovett being lauded by her adoring customers in a style that echoed Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.
More Hot Pies

The on-stage orchestra was used to mixed effect. A plus-point was the interaction with violinists and flautists when Todd and Lovett discuss pies made from fiddle and piccolo players. In some instances, the musicians' equipment was used for props. This worked well when conductor's baton was used as a comb, or when one of the double-bassists' stools was used as Todd's preliminary barber's chair.

But the idea got more strained when musical props were used that did not come from the orchestra. A cymbal was used to represent (geddit?) the dish that pies were served on, but (unless I missed it) this was brought on as a prop, rather than taken from the orchestra. And the kettle drum which Lovett uses as a worktop (geddit? - no, hang on, it's a pie shop, not a tea shop) was twice brought on by stage crew, breaking any real connection with the orchestra. Similarly the trombone used to grind the meat (ged... no, don't even bother) was not taken from a trombonist; it was just an extension of the idea of musical instruments, the concept of why they were there having been forgotten.

By definition though, this was never going to be a production that stands or falls on its staging. Musically, it was pretty top-notch. The orchestra and chorus sounded good, and the supporting cast were generally excellent. Jack North's Tobias managed to avoid the straight-out-of-theatre-school precociousness that such a young role can sometimes deliver. Rosalie Craig's Beggar Woman was too young to make any sense in terms of plot, but a difficult role was excellently sung. 

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel
Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett and Bryn Terfel were both on top form. Terfel's bass brought a strength and sustain to the music that you don't hear in more musical-theatre voices, and his acting was just right in a part that has to be mostly understated, but of occasional devastating passion. Thompson's voice is a contrast in style, and has a clear break in it that I thought would irritate, but which I quickly got used to. She performed the comedy well, but not as well as much of the audience seemed to think.

The jokes in Sweeney Todd I find much like the jokes in Shakespeare: they're witty rather than funny and you've heard them a dozen times before. They need a lot of clever delivery to make them fresh, and while that was often successful, it can't be done on every line. Maybe I do the audience a disservice in assuming they're all familiar with the show, but even heard for the first time, many of the gags just aren't laugh-out-loud funny. And some of the best are impossible to deliver well. For example, Mrs Lovett's 'That's all very well,' after Todd's devastating rendition of Epiphany is impossible to time because of the thirty seconds of applause that follow the song. And yet it got a big laugh - not a reflex, visceral convulsion at the humour, but a demonstration to the rest of the audience that the joke was got. 

It's worth mentioning some of the cuts that were made. The two acts were 85 minutes and 55 minutes, so there was no real tightness on time, which makes me wonder at the reasoning behind some of it. As is often the case, the tooth pulling section of The Contest (don't think Seinfeld) is cut and having seen it both with and without I can't say I feel too strongly either way. 

More unusually though, all the toing and froing over Pirelli's death has gone. Traditionally he's throttled by Todd, but not quite killed, and dumped in a trunk. Then there's various business with both Lovett and Tobias coming up to look for him, while Pirelli's hand waggles, caught in the lid of the trunk, until Todd finally despatches him with the razor. I'm not sure it ever works that well, and probably would do less so in such a big theatre. But what the scene does do is set up the unpleasant ambiguity of Lovett's relationship with Tobias, fulfilled in the second act where her affection for him is revealed as pure sentimentality. As it is, Tobias simply disappears until the beginning of Act II.

The strangest cut, however, is not to include The Tower of Bray in Parlour Songs. While it's never going to be a hit, it's not long and is particularly haunting as a trio with Tobias below in the bakehouse. (This was attempted with Sweet Polly Plunkett, but wasn't contextualized and didn't work so well musically.) Additionally the dialogue around The Tower of Bray provides for some good jokes: 'LOVETT: How many bells are there? BEADLE: Twelve.' - I might even have laughed at that (though I've achieved as much by telling you that I might have).

In the end, it's about expectations. I love Sweeney and I was very slightly disappointed by a production I'd had high hopes for. Impertinent of me though it may be, I suspect some of the standing ovators were overcompensating for similar disappointment. For a seasoned Todd-follower there was plenty to enjoy and, as there always is, a little to criticize too. For a novice, I'd have to recommend full staging - maybe Thompson and Terfel should give it a go.

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