“At the top of the hole sit the privileged few”
And it is mostly the privileged few who’ll get to see this lavish English National Opera production of Sondheim’s oft-revived Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as stalls seats will set you back an eye-watering £95, £125 or £155. Somewhat cheaper seats are available from the upper circle upwards but still…* Lonny Price’s semi-staged production (with its nifty fake-out of a beginning) was first seen in New York in March 2014 but unsurprisingly, given it featured Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel as Mrs Lovett and the demon barber himself, it declared “there’s no place like London” and has now taken up residence in the Coliseum alongside a cast of nearly 40 musical theatre veterans (and Thompson’s daughter) and a lush-sounding orchestra of 60.
Thompson and Terfel may be the headline names but the real pleasure comes in the luxury casting that surrounds them. Philip Quast and John Owen-Jones bring a richness of vocal to Judge Turpin and Pirelli respectively, Alex Gaumond and Jack North both mine effectively Dickensian depths to Beadle and Toby and there’s something glorious about having the marvellous Rosalie Craig here, even in so relatively minor a role as the Beggar Woman as her quality shines through despite that wig. Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall as Anthony and Johanna are both really impressive too, their voices marrying beautifully as they respond intuitively to the textures of David Charles Obell’s orchestra.
Against all of this, I found it hard not to be just a little bit underwhelmed by both the leads. I’ve never really been a fan of Bryn Terfel or the bombastic style of vocal delivery for which he is famed so whilst acknowledging he sings the part well, I wasn’t a fan but paired with his rather limited acting chops, his performance just didn’t do it for me. I mean at one key point, Rosalie Craig’s inert body was showing more believable emotion that he was. And for all of Emma Thompson’s comic ability – and she puts it to great use here – her voice never really sounds entirely comfortable as if she’s straining a touch. And together there’s little sense of real menace – Thompson avoids Mrs Lovett’s dark side and Terfel is ill-served by designer and director for what should be the gruesome conveyor belt of ‘Johanna’.
Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and heaven knows I’ve been spoiled by the glut of recent Sweeney Todds (and perhaps now we could all agree to give Sweeney a rest for a year or two). Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball set the bar massively high with their extraordinary turns in 2011/12, James Brining’s inspired 80s update really amped up the horror, the Tooting Arts Club’s production captured something unique, both musically and dramatically, in the intense in-your-face setting of an actual pie shop (now recreated on Shaftesbury Avenue for your pleasure). In light of all of these (and more, I’ve missed off Twickenham and its gore) this ENO production has to fight hard to really justify its place. But with the epic scale of a chorus and orchestra thronged with so many bodies and the forceful power they bring to the opening and closing numbers, there’s no doubting who the real stars of the show are.