Mini-review – Sweeney Todd – Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel at English National Opera

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Great was the anticipation and cheap were the seats (£10 top balcony) for my Wednesday night trip to Sweeney Todd. I haven’t always enjoyed Sondheim, but I seem to be warming up to him – I certainly really liked Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along, so I hoped this would be the trip that warmed me up to Sweeney Todd.

I wasn’t, however, expecting that this was going to only be a partially staged production, with the orchestra on stage and the cast running around on a few little platforms. Normally my ENO complaint is that they overstage things and don’t allow room for imagination – in this case, the emphasis was so wholly on the music that I was unable to emotionally connect with the show, and with the use of mikes I felt like my ability to connect with the singing was also curtailed. Mostly I could follow the lyrics (in the balcony the supertitles weren’t visible, but hey, it’s in English), but watching people stomping around in circles on stage, stealing chairs from the orchestra and generally trying to act like they were telling the story just using what was available on stage rather than having any proper props … it didn’t work for me. I wanted acting, I wanted to be able to see the performers 95% of the time and not 80% (the front of the stage was hidden for me), and I wanted to hear singing. I didn’t get these things.

Now, Emma Thompson has a bit of a scratchy voice, but she put across Mrs Lovett quite well and what I wanted from her was to be convinced, not sung to: but Terfel, who had a kind of forgettably perfect voice (does this make sense? – it just seemed to lack personality) as Sweeney Todd just didn’t seem to really be bothered with the whole acting thing. Perhaps it was the stiffness of the staging, perhaps it was the acute angle that we £10 vermin were watching from … or perhaps it’s that opera singers aren’t really supposed to be great actors because they don’t have to. I’m leaning toward the last option.

In the end – which, for me, was at around 8:50 PM – I decided that I’d got my money’s worth out of the show and wasn’t really enticed enough to stay for the second half. I knew what was going to happen, I got to listen to the silly song about “Try a little priest” … and I wasn’t feeling like I had to prove my £155 ticket was worth what I paid for it. Apparently I should have paid a little extra and gone to see the Tooting Arts Club’s Sweeney down the street … or perhaps the lesson is that I should just avoid this show. At any rate, I’d say, if you can still pick, go for the Harrington’s Pie and Mash experience – you’ll probably find it far more compelling and a better value on your pound.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 8, 2015. It continues through April 12.)

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