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.

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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 a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.