West Green Opera – Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Opera in two Acts and a Prologue to a libretto by the composer after Christopher Bond’s Sweeney Todd [sung in English with English surtitles]

Sweeney Todd – Matthew Sharp
Mrs Lovett – Clare Presland
Anthony Hope – William Morgan
Johanna Barker – Eleanor Sanderson-Nash
Judge Turpin – Simon Wilding
Adolfo Pirelli – Robin Bailey
Beadle Bamford – Jonathan Cooke
Beggar Woman – Felicity Buckland
Tobias Ragg – Harry Apps

West Green House Chorus & Orchestra
Jonathan Lyness

Richard Studer – Director & Designer
Sarah Bath – Lighting
Gary Dixon – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 22 July, 2023
Venue: West Green House Gardens, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, UK

Almost unceasing rainfall during this performance provided, perhaps, an aptly gloomy backdrop for West Green’s production of Sweeney Todd at its theatre on the lake, partly exposed to the elements as the stage faces the audience on the other side of the water. In any case, that post-pandemic arrangement at this venue has come into its own now, and the setting well exploited here to enhance the sardonic humour of Stephen Sondheim’s version of the Victorian horror story. During the Prologue a presentiment of Todd’s murderous spree is given as a shroud-bound body is unceremoniously tossed from the stage into the lake. And the lurid, blood-red backdrop of the set is matched by the red lights which illumine the surrounding trees in the later, darker part of the evening (such breath-taking lighting being the additional draw of this opera festival at West Green Gardens). The traditional red and white stripes of the barber’s pole also serve as an ironically and bloodily appropriate influence on the designs and costumes, mixed in with Victorian fashions, and elements of the commedia dell’arte.  

Clear characterisation in dress and musical performances enable the generally fast pace of the drama to be followed easily. That is important in this version of the story which probes human motivation within a social context of poverty, exploitation and oppression more explicitly and deeply than the more sensationally picaresque original version that appeared as a literary ‘penny dreadful’ serial in the 1840s, and was as much a mystery story revolving around a string of pearls (the actual name of the series). The cast come and go around the set, shared between a square box upon which Todd operates his chute from the barber’s chair to despatch his victims down below, and the orchestra to the side. But they inhabit seamlessly the shifts between sardonic, even bawdy humour, and the drama’s elements of pathos and sentiment, though not mawkishly so.

Matthew Sharp’s account of Todd encompasses a reserved, troubled air rather than simply an impulsive villainy, reminding us of his past life as Benjamin Barker, even if he could sometimes project outwards more. But he certainly does seem more like the victim – initially at least – in contrast with Simon Wilding’s severe Judge Turpin, often barking his lines to denote his authoritarian, arbitrary exercise of power. It was this Judge who was responsible for having sent Todd away to Australia for a period of time, and then raping his wife and taking in his daughter, who he now plans to marry. Clare Presland is a good foil for Todd as the irrepressibly unfazed Mrs Lovett, cultivating a jaunty, earthy Cockney personality. Although a smaller role, the Beggar Woman is played with a similar virtuosity by Felicity Buckland, flitting between the crude delivery of her obscene chat-up lines to entice customers to the carnal services she offers by night, and a mock sensuousness to elicit their compassion.

Robin Bailey adeptly switches between the ebulliently fake, Italian persona of Todd’s rival barber and tooth-puller Adolfo Pirelli and the character’s real Irish background as Todd’s former apprentice, acting as a vital pivot in the drama by means of which Todd’s backstory is revealed. Pirelli’s own apprentice, Tobias Ragg – and later Todd’s assistant – is played with a Baldrick-like insouciance, but also with a Cockney accent. Todd’s daughter, Johanna, and her lover, Anthony Hope, are decently enacted by Eleanor Sanderson-Nash and William Morgan, if there could yet be room for more passion. Jonathan Cooke takes a wry, no-nonsense approach to the part of Beadle Bamford.

The West Green House Orchestra set a suitably foreboding atmosphere from the beginning, discreetly urging the drama onward without drawing attention away from the singers. Jonathan Lyness balances the scoring well so that it is shaped rather more like a classical opera rather than emphasising effects and colour for their own sake, as the performances of works more explicitly in the genre of musical are sometimes inclined to do. For instance, Sondheim’s use of the plainsong Dies irae as a motif in the work is threaded through with a chilling subtlety. The chorus form a cogent part of the action, articulating its humour and dark drama with equal commitment; they make a particularly telling impact in their enunciations of the little refrain “the demon barber of Fleet Street”, where their insistent finality on the Ts of the last two words rightly sound sinister. Taking all the elements of the performance together, the peculiarly genial combination of horror and wit is an uncanny achievement.

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