Saturday, April 18, 2015

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Attend the tale...

Some productions are anticipated more than others.  One of my favourite musicals starring one of my favourite actresses who I first became acquainted with through her stage work but who has seemed lost to it forever since embracing films - oh and a birthday treat from two lovely friends.  I was on spilkes all day!

As I said, I first met Emma Thompson (both physically and artistically!) when she starred opposite Robert Lindsay in the marvellous revival of ME AND MY GIRL at the Adelphi in 1985.  For the intervening 30 years - 30 years!! - I have marvelled and felt great pride in her attaining the acclaim she has so rightly deserved as actress and writer, but have been quietly frustrated at her absence from the stage.  Her last stage performances were in 1990 when she played a caustic Helena and other-worldly Fool in the repertory season of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM/KING LEAR at the Dominon Theatre with then-husband Kenneth Branagh.

Emma has since said that the grind of being all-singing, all-dancing in ME AND MY GIRL for her run in the show was a strain which I suspect played a part in her absence from the stage although I also heard from an inside source that she had lost the bottle for live performance.

I asked her in 2006 when she was going to return to the stage and she joked that she couldn't do it while bringing up a daughter too - but who is that hidden in the chorus of SWEENEY TODD but Gaia Wise?  As I joined in the roof-raising ovation for Emma's bow I wondered "how can you turn your back on this?"  Hopefully this very short run has given her the confidence again as she really is wonderfully charismatic onstage.

Lonny Price's semi-staged production filled the Coliseum stage and spilled out into the auditorium which made it particularly thrilling to see from our great seats in the centre of the 2nd row of the Dress Circle.  SWEENEY TODD was the first in a new initiative to give the Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera and Ballet, over to a musical production once a year in attempt to get some cold, hard cash into the coffers.  How successful this idea will be is open to conjecture as a fully staged production would probably be too costly to stage for a limited run and a semi-staged usually leaves you wanting more.

It's right for big musicals to be performed on the Coliseum stage as in the 1950s KISS ME KATE, GUYS AND DOLLS, DAMN YANKEES, CAN-CAN and PYJAMA GAME all opened there, the relative failure of BELLS ARE RINGING ending this period of the theatre's history.  Of course the occasional musical has been staged by the English National Opera with varying degrees of success.

Of course the casting of Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd meant the opera audience would be booking too and he certainly sang the role to perfection but... This year is not only my 30th anniversary of knowing Emma but also is the 30th anniversary of my first seeing SWEENEY TODD onstage.  That was at the long-gone Half Moon Theatre in a production directed by Chris Bond, who had written the original play with music that Stephen Sondheim had seen at Stratford East in 1973.

Since then I have seen nine other productions, sometimes in raptures, sometimes baffled how they muffed it.  However the performances of Sweeney I remember fondly are when he has been played by an actor who can sing eg. Alun Armstrong and Denis Quilley at the National Theatre or Leon Greene at the Half Moon. Some have played the role in the same monotone all the way through which is annoying as Sweeney swings from despair to manic exaltation and actors like the above-named can play all that range with glee. Terfel played the role as I am sure he would in an opera production - letting his singing voice do everything but to do that is to miss so much.

Emma's Mrs Lovett on the other hand was played for all it's comedic worth and she sang it well too.  If she slightly missed out on the darker side of Mrs Lovett - she is the real engine for all the action once Sweeney walks into her shop - I suspect that can only ever really be brought out in a properly staged production. She did rise to the final scene very well when tha actress playing Mrs Lovett has to change from comedienne to tragedienne.

Emma had great fun with all the comedy business that Lonny Price found for her: making her worst pies in London on a kettledrum, stealing a seat from one of the orchestra, singling out a violinist during A LITTLE PRIEST and in a great idea, cutting Sweeney's hair while singing BY THE SEA. For her death scene - always a tricky moment in even the best production - Emma fell backwards into the orchestra pit - luckily straight into the arms of the chorus!

Philip Quast was an excellent Judge Turpin, superbly sung and as commanding as Terfel in their PRETTY WOMEN duet, and Quast was nicely partnered by Alex Gaumond as a particularly Uriah Heap-ish Beadle Bamford.  Rosalie Craig was an impressive Beggar Woman, lending her final scene a tragic pathos, and the sometimes problematic young juvs Anthony and Joanna were well sung by Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall.  I felt Jack North as Tobias was a little overshadowed however.

As I said Lonny Price's vision for the sem-staging was wonderfully thought-through, using the whole of the auditorium - ingeniously so for the CITY ON FIRE scene when the lunatics really did feel all around us having escaped from Fogg's Asylum. 

The start was particularly fun: the stage was prepared for the usual concert staging, a line of music-stands along the stage apron, bouquets on stands on either side of the stage and a grand piano in front of the on-stage orchestra.  The cast walked onstage carrying their bound scripts, Emma looking regal in a flowing red dress, and launched into the brooding THE BALLAD OF SWEENEY TODD.

Halfway through, anarchy broke out with scripts hurled to the floor, music stands thrown into the orchestra pit, bouquet stands kicked over, piano toppled over and used as a podium and the large red curtain at the back is ripped down to reveal a punky backdrop - and the floaty wings of Emma's dress were ripped off!  It engaged me with Price's vision right at the get-go.  What didn't work was the obvious problem - how to do the gore?  I liked the idea of a bloody hand-print flashing on the back wall when a killing occurred but just having Sweeney's victims stand up from the chair and walk off was a bit redundant.

However what Price got exactly right was the last act which, if done right, is the most gripping theatre you will ever see as the action suddenly gathers pace and all the characters face their destinies.  Here, it was thrilling and as usual the show left me breathless!

I am sometimes asked what my favourite Stephen Sondhein score is and I have to admit the sheer range and emotional depth of SWEENEY TODD makes it my favourite and to hear it played by the English National Opera Orchestra was another absolute pleasure in a production that moved me to very happy tears.  You made me blub again Emma!!

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