Opera della Luna – Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd – Melodrama adapted & edited by Jeff Clarke from the original by George Dibdin Pitt to an orchestral arrangement by James Widden

Colonel Jeffries / Reverend Lupin / Jonas Fogg – Paul Featherstone
Thornhill / Mr Oakley / Mr Ruby / Jean Parmine / Bully Gregson – Matt Kellett
Sweeney Todd – Nick Dwyer
Tobias Ragg / Mrs Oakley / Tom Cutaway – Caroline Kennedy
Mr Grant / Captain Rathbone / Ben-the-Beefeater / Jarvis Williams / Sneaking Joe – Matthew Siveter
Johanna Oakley – Madeline Robinson
Cecily Maybush / Mrs Lovett – Lynsey Docherty

Opera della Luna Orchestra
Toby Purser

Jeff Clarke – Director
Elroy Ashmore – Designer
Paul Knott – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 18 April, 2023
Venue: The Theatre, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England

The legend of Sweeney Todd first appeared in a ‘penny dreadful’ serial, called The String of Pearls, between 1846 and 1847, and whilst still running was quickly adapted for the stage as a melodrama under that title by George Dibdin Pitt (nephew of Charles Dibdin the Younger, the son of the more famous composer of the same name) and mounted at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton. It became wildly popular, especially in the theatres of London’s East End, and would have been presented, as often as not, with music, since such theatres generally maintained an orchestra of around ten members. But with so few complete scores surviving – and none for this particular work – what music was actually used is largely unknown.

Jeff Clarke’s adaptation of Pitt’s original scenario and script for Opera della Luna aims to recreate the spirit of such melodramas (rather than the exact text or score) by drawing upon the roughly contemporary stage-works of such composers as Michael Balfe, Julius Benedict, and Henry Bishop – musicians all once as esteemed as Arthur Sullivan. Seeing that their operas are almost entirely ignored by theatres now, the chance to sample such extracts in a dramatic setting is more than welcome. (One wonders why English National Opera has not used at least some of their resources to revive once popular works as The Lily of KillarneyThe Bohemian Girl, or Balfe’s own version of Falstaff – all fairly important milestones in the history of English opera by these prolific composers in the generations before Sullivan, with or without Gilbert.)

The result of James Widden’s musical arrangements is not an operatic medley or pasticcio as such (or type of musical even, and this version emphatically has nothing to do with Stephen’s Sondheim’s adaptation) since only a handful of songs and arias are used. As Clarke explains in the programme notes, the orchestra’s fairly constant accompaniment or commentary upon the stage action is rather more akin to a film score. In performance the effect is almost like an expressionist film of the 1920s as the orchestra’s cues often come at moments of heightened tension in a drama that is already lurid and grisly. Among the songs used are three from Balfe’s Satanella (of which a Naxos recording exists, incidentally) and a comic one in somewhat Mozartian style by Bishop, adapted for Jarvis Williams as he relishes Mrs Lovett’s pies before he realises exactly what meat is in them. Otherwise the purely instrumental music in between works upon themes from other operas such as Balfe’s The Siege of Rochelle and Benedict’s The Crusaders (it would have been interesting to read in more detail precisely what music is used and how the score was put together). The orchestra of those Victorian London theatres is replicated here with Opera della Luna’s ensemble of eleven performers, under Toby Purser’s direction, who respond to the narrative with spirit and good humour. With just one performer to each instrumental part there is a convivial interaction among them, as though reproducing the plot in sound. They also provide some of the sound effects (such as creaking doors opening and closing, alongside other recorded effects) adding to the production’s self-parodying fun.

Within a simple setting and costumes that generally represent the original period of composition faithfully (though some characters appear in more Georgian attire, perhaps to invoke what would have been a not-too-distant past for the Victorians) the cast of seven take on multiple parts. Especially in the denouement they joke about the fact that the actors have to disappear and change costumes, sending up the practices of small theatre companies having to multi-task energetically with limited resources, to entertaining effect. If the general use of Cockney accents to depict a social underclass in a wide range of periods has become something of a theatrical cliché, at least on this occasion it fits the setting of the work and the theatres where it was first seen in the 19th century.

Such melodramas were never subtle, and so the cast’s deliberately hammed or camped up performance, like a pantomime – though not gratuitously lewd or smutty here – revives the overblown, stylised theatrical ethos of the original genre, designed to incite instantaneous reactions in the audience, rather than cerebral rumination in silence. Hence the audience is stirred up to interact a little with the performance, particularly with a boo or disapproving comment when Todd appears, elicited by the wittily, slyly sinister way in which he (more than the other characters) breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly in an attempt to enlist our sympathy (a typical dramatic ploy by the villain – for example as Francis Urquhart does in House of Cards to name a classic recent example on the television screen).  Nick Dwyer gamely improvises some responses to fend them off, and one can be sure that he will be ready with further repartee according to whatever audiences in the rest of the run care to launch at him.  

Matt Kellett demonstrates impressive versatility as he shifts between quite different registers and demeanours for some of the central characters in the narrative – the hero, Thornhill, during much of the plot thought to have been murdered; the bumbling Mr Oakley; Jean Parmine, the German employee of the Lovetts who makes the infamous pies; and Sneaking Joe, one of the ‘bad ‘uns’. His duet with Madeleine Robinson’s dainty Johanna Oakley is tenderly sung, about the only musical number done ‘straight’, as the others are deliberately delivered more in character than with typical operatic finesse.

Paul Featherstone nimbly hops between roles, such as the upright Colonel Jeffries, and the hilariously oleaginous Reverend Lupin (somewhat like Trollope’s Obadiah Slope, but more lustful and hypocritical). Lynsey Docherty is a splendidly unhinged Mrs Lovett (the pie shop proprietor) and robust Cecily Maybush, the Oakleys’ servant, who ingeniously digs her way out of trouble with the bad ‘uns. Caroline Kennedy shows flair as one of those, Tom Cutaway, and in the boyish trouser role of Tobias Ragg, Todd’s apprentice, in addition to the simpering Mrs Oakley who fawns over Lupin and his apparently prayerful ‘love meetings’. Matthew Siveter ably embodies the almost literally larger-than-life parts of Ben-the-Beefeater and Captain Rathbone, as well as the Baldrick-like ingenuousness of Jarvis Williams, the indigent simpleton who is enlisted by Lovett and Todd to replace Parmine, once he is murdered, as their pie maker.

Overall this is a boisterous and vivid recreation of the traditions of melodrama which doesn’t claim to be authentic in every detail, but in general captures its particular spirit with zest, in a manner that also appeals to modern sensibilities. This rare opportunity to sample that will surely be of interest to all fans of music theatre and its history.

Further performances between April 25 & 29 April at Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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