Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd at the ENO. Photo: Tristran Kenton
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Meat is murder: Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum

A subversive semi-staging of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd brings the infamous barber back to London.

Sweeney Todd
English National Opera, London WC2

Sweeney Todd is an urban legend, in every sense. The vicious barber who slits his customers’ throats and sends their bodies down a chute to be turned into pie filling may first have appeared in a London penny dreadful in 1846, but he has been reincarnated on stage, on screen and in print so often since that his origins have acquired a distinctly mythic quality. The man himself shifts and adapts, but he unfailingly inhabits the same city. The demon barber of Fleet Street will always be found in London.

This semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller welcomes Sweeney back home. First performed at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, it has come to the London Coliseum as the first instance of what the ENO promises will be an ongoing commitment to “world-class musical theatre”. But is that how we should describe the great composer’s Sweeney Todd? Opera houses and critics traditionally have very little time for “lower” forms of culture like musicals – a little Gilbert and Sullivan may be permissible, but anything that premiered on Broadway starring Angela Lansbury is surely beyond the pale.

Sondheim has always defied such lazy characterisation, and in the last decade or so it seems as if the classical musical establishment has finally caught on. In the casting for this version, the tired old question – opera or operetta? musical or thriller? – is emphatically rebuffed. Bryn Terfel, the internationally renowned Welsh baritone famed for his interpretations of Mozart and Wagner, is Sweeney. Emma Thompson, Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter, is his scheming, wheedling partner-in-crime Mrs Lovett. It’s a winning combination: the booming baritone and the consummate comedian look an unlikely pair, but they fit these roles perfectly.

Photo: Tristran Kenton

In a glorious bit of sleight of hand, we’re led to believe this semi-staged production will be a formal, conventional affair. As you would expect the orchestra is at the heart of everything, occupying the centre stage. We applaud the leader and the conductor as they come to take their places. The soloists file on to stand before the music stands ranged at the front of the stage. The overture begins, but after the first few lines Terfel and Thompson exchange dark glances and then push their scores on to the floor.

In the next few minutes, the stage is turned upside down. A grand piano is overturned, flower arrangements are upset, tailcoats and ballgowns are shredded. The grand red velvet curtains at the back of the stage part to reveal a collage of graffiti. The symbols and slogans of anarchy and anti-capitalism are everywhere: Occupy, the 99 per cent, revolution. Even the back of the conductor’s jacket is split to reveal a bloody handprint on his shirt beneath. Fists raised, the chorus bursts into Sondheim’s dissonant, challenging score. The message is clear. This is a Sweeney Todd of disruption, chaos and subversion.

Even though this is far from a static semi-staging, the orchestra remains integral to everything. As well as being the show’s musical foundation, it provides the props: the meat grinder in Mrs Lovett’s grisly pie shop operation is a trombone, she kneads her foul dough on top of a kettle drum, and when she needs a stool she pinches one from a double bass player. Thompson excels in this kind of mischievous business. Her rendition of the act one finale, “A Little Priest”, is superb. This is the moment when she realises Sweeney’s murderous crusade against the people who destroyed his family is actually a business opportunity. His victims are the meat she needs for her pies. It’s a perverted waltz of a number, which Thompson exploits to the full. Her comic timing glories in Sondheim’s word-play, but there’s always an undercurrent of darkness to her performance. As Sweeney grows enthusiastic about her plan, we see her eyes shine with obsequious devotion. Starved of love, even his twisted affection is enough to secure her absolute loyalty.

Photo: Tristran Kenton

Terfel is a static, monstrous Sweeney, all rumbling menace and terrible stillness. Although Thompson’s voice stands up surprisingly well to his baritone roar, Terfel’s best vocal duet is with Philip Quast as Judge Turpin. With his enemy helpless in his barber’s chair, Sweeney toys with him, filling his voice with menace only to proceed calmly with the shave.

It is at moments like this that the unconventional staging really proves its worth. Conductor David Charles Abell stands with baton poised, heightening the tension before slicing down into the music. Above, Terfel mirrors him precisely, his razor held aloft before bringing it down towards his victim’s throat. There might be less gore than in a full stage version, but this is certainly a bloody good way to experience Sondheim’s music.

Sweeney Todd is at the London Coliseum until 12 April. www.eno.org

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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