Sweeney Todd – does size matter?

9. Stephen Sondheim, Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel at Sweeney Todd opening night at ENO's London Coliseum. Photo credit Dan Wooller

Stephen Sondheim, Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel at the opening night of Sweeney Todd at ENO’s London Coliseum. Picture: Dan Wooller

In the battle of the large and small scale productions of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd (currently playing in London), which one produces the ultimate, dramatic knockout punch? The star-studded US transfer at the ENO or Tooting Arts Club’s intensely intimate staging in a pop-up pie shop in Shaftesbury Avenue? Craig Glenday investigates…

Londoners are currently being treated to not one but two professional productions of Sweeney Todd, and the difference between the two could not be more extreme. With one staged in London’s largest theatre space (the 2,359-seat Coliseum) and the other in what must surely be the smallest – the 36-seat pop-up Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop squished into the basement between the Queen’s and the Gielgud – it affords the opportunity to explore just how far a show can be moulded and adapted to suit its environs.

The joy of Sondheim’s shows is that they are eminently malleable – more so, arguably, than any other in the musical theatre canon. They can withstand a lot of adaptation, in the way that, say, a Lloyd Webber or Boublil-Schönberg show can’t. Recent productions of Into the Woods are testament to this, from Timothy Sheader’s outstanding outdoors and somewhat steampunky production at Regent’s Park to Tim McArthur’s intimate and inventive modern-day interpretation at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub theatre in Walthamstow, via the cavernous and very traditional version by Lee Blakeley at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris. And then there’s the Hollywood movie, of course.

But it’s Sweeney Todd that demonstrates the greatest flexibility of all Sondheim’s work, I believe. First produced on a grand scale in Broadway’s biggest theatre, the Uris (now Gershwin), the show caught fans by surprise on its 1989 first US revival when it played at the tiny Off-Off-Broadway York Theatre Company (seats 178) before transferring to Off-Broadway’s Circle in the Square (seats 776). It was for this production that the nickname ’Teeny Todd’ was coined.

In 1993, Declan Donnellan showed Londoners how well Sweeney worked as an intimate piece in the chamber setting of the Cottesloe. It also helped that he amassed such a wonderful cast: Alun Armstrong (Sweeney), Julia McKenzie (Lovett), Adrian Lester (Anthony) and Denis Quilley (Judge Turpin). Surely the show couldn’t get any smaller?

Well, yes it could, courtesy of actor-muso champion John Doyle, whose 2004 revival at the Watermill in Newbury – which later transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, then the Ambassadors – saw the actors take on the challenge of providing their own musical accompaniment. This show finally made its way to Broadway in 2005 and is responsible for one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre: Patti LuPone playing the tuba!

Siobhan McCarthy (Mrs Lovett) in Tooting Arts Club's

Siobhan McCarthy in Tooting Arts Club’s production of Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. Picture: Bronwen Sharp 

Between Donnellan and Doyle was Richard James and Stuart Pedlar’s 2000 promenade production at the Bridewell – a former Edwardian swimming pool. This dark, creepy, hands-on version saw the action take place all around you, heightening the claustrophobia and bringing the horror into your lap. This is how Sweeney is meant to be – a sentiment shared by Sondheim himself, who had always thought of his show as a parlour piece.

Most recently, we saw two larger-scale productions of Sweeney that really put a new spin on the show by relocating the action out of Victorian London and into a later setting. First was Jonathan Kent’s 1950s staging at Chichester starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, which transferred in 2012 to the Adelphi in London. Despite the naysayers, the period suited the drama and nothing of any importance was lost.

Then pushing the envelope even further was James Brining’s ever-evolving Dundee Rep/West Yorkshire Playhouse/Manchester Royal Exchange production that re-set the show in 1979. With the latter, we could see Sweeney on various scales, from the small in Dundee to the epic in Leeds’ Quarry Theatre.

And testament to the fact that show works in the smallest of spaces was the fantastic pint-sized Sweeney above a pub in Twickenham Theatre’s production in September last year. Starring David Bedella and Sarah Ingram, this bloody and very dark version returned to the Victorian milieu but compacted it into a space no bigger than your living room. Indeed, it was so up close and personal that audiences went home spattered with blood. It also gave you the terrifying experience of staring into the cold eyes of Ingram’s Mrs Lovett, a character she based on Moors murderer Myra Hindley. Genuinely unnerving.

Currently on stage, within yards of each other, are two Sweeneys at opposite ends of the production scale. Sweeney is Sondheim’s most operatic of shows, so it’s no surprise it gets the opera house treatment – it’s been played at the Houston Grand Opera, the New York City Opera (twice), Michigan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, London Royal Opera House, Opera North, and in opera houses in Canada, Japan, Israel, Spain and Australia, to name just a few. And until 12 April, you can see it at the Coliseum, courtesy of the ENO, in a re-staging of the semi-staged concert version first seen at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York last year by director Lonny Price.

This epic production stars Bryn Terfel as the titular anti-hero and, in a casting coup, Emma Thompson as the depraved pie-mistress. A bass-baritone, Terfel has a deliciously deep, warm resonance and has to be one of the better singers to take on the role. He is in stark contrast to Thompson, whose comic, flighty Mrs Lovett is a light confection, although with a surprisingly strong singing voice.

Sweeney Todd Emma Thompson and ensemble (c) Tristram Kenton

Emma Thompson and ensemble in the large-scale Sweeney Todd at the Coliseum. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The conceit of this concert version is that nothing is what it seems – the stuffy formality of the opera house is literally overturned, as the chorus go ape and tear the stage to shreds by the end of the second number. Pianos are upturned, musicians are unseated mid-song, and the black-tie dress code goes out of the window with the librettos.

But having just attended the opening night, I felt that something vital got thrown out with the books and the bow ties. Terfel and Thompson make for an interesting partnership – and the principals and chorus are all impressive – but gone is the personal connection to the people and the events. In a show of this proportion, these larger than life characters are dwarfed – and upstaged – by the staging. (It didn’t help that I saw it from the Balcony, which afforded very poor viewing of the action downstage, of which there seemed an awful lot, given the size of space available.) The Coliseum is wide and deep, and there’s a lot of distracting running around. The vital link that must be made between performer and audience gets severed as distance is put between the two, like a phone signal going out of range.

And for me, it’s just too… well… operatic. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it immensely. It’s beautiful to listen to – the score has never sounded better thanks to the ENO orchestra under David Charles Abell’s direction – but in a clinical, austere way that earns your respect and even tingles the spine but doesn’t necessarily touch you heart. We’ve lost the soul of the show, not just because it’s semi-staged, but because of the sheer scale of the effort.

Contrast this with the Tooting Arts Club’s intimate – some would say oppressive – production at Harrington’s pie shop. Here we have a show that grabs at your neck and spits in your face. It’s immediate and raw and absolutely all about the drama. It’s meant to be a thriller – ‘A Musical Thriller’, according to the subtitle – and at Harrington’s you really are thrilled in a way that’s not possible in an enormous space that requires enormous performances.

Yes, the orchestra isn’t very big (well, it’s a piano, clarinet and violin), and a lot of material has to be cut to fit the space and restricted staging. But none of this matters. It’s all about bringing these egregious characters to life, and terrifying you with their heinous acts.

(Interestingly, there were some odd cuts in the ENO Sweeney – why truncate the Beadle’s parlour songs? – so there isn’t necessarily a correlation between size of venue and size of the script.)

There will always be a place for large-scale, operatic treatments of Sondheim’s work. The man himself isn’t averse to these grand affairs – he’s apparently keen to see Le Chatelet try their hand at Passion, which, given the size of this gargantuan Parisian auditorium and the intimacy of the piece will be a Herculean effort to make a success.

But for my money, Sondheim really works best on an intimate scale. These are human stories that need to be told in a naturalistic, unfussy way. So thank you, ENO, for showing us an interesting side to Sweeney – and yes, I’ll be back to see it again, enjoying an even better and more involved experience from my £100+ stalls seat next week, hopefully! Yet in the bloodless battle of the Sweeneys, I suspect the small scale will always win over the big.




Readers may also be interested in:

Sweeney Todd at the ENO – production images released – News

Sweeney Todd – Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop, Shaftesbury Theatre – Review


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