Sweeney Todd continues at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton until 17 October and on tour until 29 November.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Welsh National Opera’s first-ever musical, the bloody tale of revenge that many regard as Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, is part of their Madness trilogy that’s currently on tour with Bellini’s I Puritani and Handel’s Orlando.
There have been such a rash of Sweeney productions, from Chichester to Twickenham, from pie-and-mash shop to Terfel and Thompson, but this is WNO’s collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse version that updates Hugh Wheeler’s book from the squalor of Victorian London to the early 1980s to mirror the Thatcher era and the Winter of Discontent.
Director James Brining’s vision, which started out in Dundee and then went on to considerable critical acclaim in Leeds and in-the-round at Manchester, is a political statement that draws parallels between the two eras.
It’s a point of view but not an entirely convincing conceit. Corrupt officialdom, homelessness, perverted politicians, false imprisonment and a whole lot more may well have been common to both but self-flagellation, rape and transportation to Botany Bay?
The irony of the piece is that true insanity resides not in the mad-house but in a society that allows the Judge Turpins and Beadle Bamfords, those who run the show at whatever level, to thrive, prosper and get to the top in the first place.
But why do great works of art need ‘treatment’? Some of us never tire of the original and I didn’t find the changes necessary or an improvement. At this rate, they’ll be putting arms on the Mona Lisa.
Colin Richmond’s atmospheric set – what looks like giant shipping containers, with Sweeney’s sinister barber’s shop and Johanna’s chintzy bedroom on the top level and the pie-shop, now an East End caff with disgusting fag-ashed table tops, and the asylum inmates down below – is one highlight.
This Sweeney doesn’t shy away from sex either. The rape scene is up-front, Judge Turpin doesn’t spare himself in the self-flagellation stakes, and Mrs Lovett’s lust for the otherwise-minded Sweeney involves much scrotum-grabbing that goes beyond mere playfulness.
And the full WNO orchestra under the baton of James Holmes – last seen by this reviewer conducting The King and I at the Chatelet in Paris – undeniably makes beautiful music.
But sadly the sound balance and Mayflower acoustics do the cast no favours. From an excellent seat in the third row of the Dress Circle, many of the words were muffled or lost, among them, inevitably, much of the humour.
The Bellini and Handel the previous two evenings both came with surtitles. Particularly for those less familiar with the score, they would not have come amiss here either. I thought it might have been my old ears, but younger members of the audience were complaining too.
It is a big stage and a big theatre, seating 2,300, only a third filled on opening night. A lovely theatre too that once was the Gaumont, where Margot Fonteyn, Bill Haley and Queen once performed. Though not on the same evening…
Because of the struggle to grasp all Sondheim’s sensational lyrics, this sadly has to go down as an underwhelming Sweeney.
The German baritone David Arnsperger, better known in his homeland for Lloyd Webber leads in Phantom, Sunset Boulevard and Evita, makes a broodingly thoughtful Todd but frightened me less than Imelda Staunton did as Momma Rose in Gypsy.
Scottish soprano Janis Kelly’s Nellie Lovett is skittishly solid and Charlotte Page’s Beggar Woman a strong, well-sung characterisation.
So too Jamie Muscato’s Anthony and George Ure’s Tobias, while Aled Hall’s classically-trained Beadle Bamford is a thoroughly unpleasant thug toadying up to a sharp-suited judge (Steven Page) determined to marry his young ward Johanna (Soraya Mafi).
Paul Charles Clarke as rival barber Pirelli and his young sidekick George Newton-Fitzgerald as Jonas Fogg, along with 20 soloists from the Welsh National Opera chorus, complete a musically pleasing team effort.
But the Sweeney productions that have made the biggest, scariest impact have been the small-scale ones, in the Tooting pie shop seating 33 or the room above a Twickenham pub seating not many more, and maybe it is a show that works better as a chamber piece.
There’s every chance this Sweeney will sound better when it moves in to Bristol, Llandudno, Oxford, Liverpool and Birmingham before heading back to where it began, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. It’s early days and needs a bit of fine-tuning.
Only a fair evening then but one made into a memorable one when one local approached me and asked, apparently in all seriousness: “Are you Stephen Sondheim?” Fame at last!