Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ba6U4mZpG6Y]

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

[youtube http://youtu.be/D3-4JHLO12Y]

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.

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3 responses to “Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

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