Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd – Bryn Terfel
Anthony Hope – Daniel Boys
Beggar Woman – Rosemary Ashe
Mrs Lovett – Maria Friedman
Johanna – Emma Williams
Judge Turpin – Philip Quast
The Beadle – Steve Elias
Tobias – Daniel Evans
Pirelli – Adrian Thompson

Ensemble – Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire
Chorus – Maida Vale Singers

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Stephen Barlow

David Freeman – Director
Dan Potra – Designer
Ben Ormerod – Lighting Designer
Denni Sayers – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 July, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Bryn Terfel, who takes a leading role in the performances of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. ©Bran TarrLondon ‘Sweeney’ fans have been fortunate in the last few years; they have had the opportunity of seeing David McVicar’s searing production for Opera North brought to Sadler’s Wells, Neil Armfield’s Chicago staging at Covent Garden and a radically new realisation in which the actors also play instruments to accompany the drama – the latter I have not witnessed. I prefer the sound of Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestration (devised alongside the composer) – richly realised in this semi-staging in the Royal Festival Hall.

Bryn Terfel is, of course, the ‘draw’ for this series of performances, and he and Adrian Thompson were the only ‘operatic’ members of the cast. One must not neglect, however, the contribution of conductor Stephen Barlow, steeped in opera, who contributed considerably to the success of this performance of Sondheim’s masterly score. Barlow conducted with evident empathy for the distinctive sonorities, and kept the drama moving inexorably towards its tragic conclusion, handling odd moments of stray ensemble judiciously during its course. I found his pacing wholly admirable, with tempos perfectly judged. The London Philharmonic responded to his direction empathetically, and Tunick’s scoring registered much more clearly than it would in a conventional ‘commercial’ theatre. One could savour evocative harp figuration, string textures and woodwind commentaries – the latter including a beautifully played cor anglais, alternately menacing and melancholy.

Bryn Terfel and Philip Quast as Sweeney Todd and Judge Turpin. Photograph: Kieron McCarronBryn Terfel has previously essayed the title role in presentations in Chicago. Here he portrayed a dour, brooding personality, though not without its lighter moments. In fact, he lurched from the one to the other alarmingly, suggesting most vividly an unstable, if not schizophrenic, character. His lyrical singing was moving, and his moments of anger properly terrifying. In conveying force, there were occasional ‘barked’ lines that were unnecessary, but one still felt empathy for this tragic figure, and his realisation that he had unwittingly killed his wife (the Beggar Woman) was heartrending.

Earlier, his affectionate address to his razors, whilst Mrs Lovett was declaring her feelings for him, served only to reinforce his sense of isolation and of his obsessive quest for vengeance. Maria Friedman was an effective foil for Terfel, bringing a lightness of touch to her portrayal of the feisty yet ultimately doomed figure of Mrs Lovett. Friedman is best known for her depiction of vulnerable women and this paid dividends at various points – her declaration of “a woman alone” in her otherwise effervescent opening number was touching and affecting. Her forthright demeanour, however, added much to the robust opening to the second act.

Other members of the company were strongly cast. The somewhat naïve depiction of Anthony by Daniel Boys (a contender in the BBC’s “Any Dream will Do” competition to find the next Joseph for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show and new production) was most appropriate. His light tenor-ish voice was well-nigh-ideal, and he held his own effectively in ensemble, as well as expressively in his big apostrophe to Johanna. Philip Quast had the necessary darkness as the Judge – a pity, therefore, that his self-flagellation scene was omitted – and Steve Elias was a wheedling Beadle. Daniel Evans was a charming and personable Tobias, his ‘Not while I’m around’ being a lyrical highlight – as it should be. Pirelli’s comparatively short appearance was securely projected by Adrian Thompson, making one regret that this quasi-Italian tenor’s contribution is not longer (it would have been had the ‘tooth-pulling’ scene been included). Emma Williams had some co-ordination problems, though her voice was well suited to the part.

The Guildford School of Acting provided current and recent graduates for the Ensemble – and very impressive they were, too, with some secure high soprano notes (extending to a top D) and credible characterisations. Aligned with the Maida Vale Singers, the choral sound was commendably rich and full.

David Freeman’s production was restricted to judicious movement, placing and gesture. There was no scenery, but apposite usage of minimal props – an effective enough presentation short of a full staging. “Sweeney Todd” has been presented in a variety of ways, but this one was extremely effective and reminded one of the power of this distinctive piece of musical theatre.

  • Further performances on 6 July at 7.30 p.m. and on 7 July at 2.30 p.m. & 7.30 p.m.

  • Southbank Centre

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