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.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons confidential: Alastair Campbell's crafty confab

Campbell chats, Labour spats, and the moderate voice in Momentum.

Tony Blair’s hitman Alastair Campbell doesn’t have a good word to say about Jeremy Corbyn, so perhaps that helps to explain his summit with Theresa May’s joint chief of staff Fiona Hill. The former Labour spinner and the powerful consigliera in the current Tory Downing Street regime appeared to get along famously during an hour-long conversation at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, just off Whitehall.

So intense was the encounter – which took place on a Wednesday morning, before Prime Minister’s Questions – that the political pair didn’t allow a bomb scare outside to intrude, moving deeper into the hotel lounge instead to continue the confab. We may only speculate on the precise details of the consultation. And yet, as a snout observed, it isn’t rocket science to appreciate that Hill would value tips from Campbell, while a New Labour zealot plying his trade to high-paying clients through the lobbyists Portland could perhaps benefit by privately mentioning his access to power. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Is Ted Heath the next VIP blank to be drawn by police investigations into historic child sex abuse? The Wiltshire plod announced a year ago, with great fanfare outside the deceased PM’s home in Salisbury, that it would pursue allegations against Sailor Ted. Extra officers were assigned and his archive, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was examined. I hear that the Tory peer David Hunt, the ermined chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, recently met the cops. The word is that the Heath inquiry has uncovered nothing damaging and is now going through the motions.

The whisper in Labour circles is that the Momentum chair, Jon Lansman, is emerging as an unlikely voice cautioning against permanent revolution in the party and opposing a formal challenge from within Corbynista ranks to the deputy leader, Tom Watson. His strategy is two steps forward, one step back. Jezza’s vanguard is as disputatious as any other political movement.

The Tribune Group of MPs, relaunching on 2 November in parliament, will be a challenger on the Labour left to the Socialist Campaign Group, which ran Corbyn as its leadership candidate. Will Hutton is to speak at the Commons gathering. How times change. I recall Tony Blair courting “Stakeholder” Hutton before the 1997 election, but then ignoring him in high office. With luck, the Tribunites will be smarter and more honourable.

Politics imitates art when a Plaid Cymru insider calls the nationalists’ leader, Leanne Wood, “our Birgitte Nyborg”, a reference to the fictional prime minister in Borgen. Owain Glyndwr must be turning in his grave, wherever it is.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood