A CurtainUp London Review
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
by Brian Clover
Sweeney Todd has a very special place in Stephen Sondheim's catalogue. Much of his work has a bitter-sweet, intimate, chamber quality, but not Sweeney. Whatever label you stick on it, this piece is on a much grander scale with Dickens's gross and glorious London as its backdrop, murderers for principals and a supporting cast of diseased beggars, corrupt cops, crooked tradesmen and tormented lunatics. Sondheim wrote this in the late 1970's, distilling some two decades of troubled history - assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate - into a work of coruscating bitterness, cynicism and black humour. In a world of corruption and hypocrisy, where power devours men, women and children, the only punishable crime is naivety.
Sondheim takes the familiar Victorian melodrama of the demon barber of Fleet Street and his pie-making accomplice - the original fast food retailers - and gives it a Brechtian twist. Daringly, Sondheim (assisted by Christopher Bond's adaptation) makes his nightmare protagonists even more monstrous by the simple device of humanising them. Sweeney is no grand guignol villain: he is a decent man turned killer purely for motives of revenge. Even the adoring, but pragmatic, Mrs Lovett considers his murderous idealism sadly deviant, until she finds a way of profiting from it; she calms his passions and so the pair become part of the great machine which turns people into commodities.
Sweeney and Lovett become everyday murderers and flourish. Sondheim conjures genuinely dark and shocking frissons here: Sweeney's climactic plunge into madness at the end of Act I is unforgettable, all the more so for leading into a blackly comic duet with Mrs Lovett about the relative merits of different human meats. (And in passing we note that when Mrs Lovett challenges Sweeney to rhyme "locksmith", the audience is alienated more effectively, and pleasurably, than by anything Brecht ever achieved.) Lovett lyrically describes her ideal of a life - "By the sea" - with Sweeney, and later sings an achingly tender lullaby to orphan Tobias. Both times the beauty of the music beguiles you into forgetting the mound of corpses lying in the basement or that Tobias is next for the meat grinder.
In something of a dignified nod to music theatre, The Royal Opera House stages Sweeney Todd in a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by Neil Armfield. In this magnificent space Sondheim's work is not indulged but rather treated with the respect it deserves and quite a few cobwebs are blown out of the building. The staging is stark, but effective, highlighting the performers who have to project this powerful music, not shelter behind it as can be the case with opera. And there is a great range of music - grand chorus, tender love lyric, show tune, hymn, folk song and parodies of Italian opera - as if George Gershwin had collaborated with Alban Berg.
As the audience take their seats they see an open stage with jailers patrolling the set (by Brian Thomson) - a massive cage, whose interior swiftly adapts to be a town square, a barber shop, a Victorian parlour or a lunatic asylum but also, when hung with sweeping curtains, becomes a shadow screen for nightmare visions of murder, rape and madness. The performances match the setting. Thomas Allen is a powerful Sweeney, with volcanic passions seething under his professional affability. Felicity Palmer's Mrs Lovett conveys humour, horror, ruthlessness and a surprising vulnerability. The solo singing throughout is faultless, as is the chorus and small ensemble work. Incidental delights in the orchestral and vocal score, that you may have missed in more theatrical productions, become apparent here under Paul Gemignani's experienced direction. If you are going, you owe yourself a seat in the stalls to enjoy music, set and lighting to greatest advantage.
But some Todd lovers may miss that hard edge they associate with this piece. Opera singers tend to produce beautiful sounds. It's not their fault, they've spent a lifetime training to do just this. But beauty is not always the point. Great actors singing at their limits can be more moving than great singers acting, at least in a piece like this. For us, as for Les Gutman reviewing the Signature Theatre production in 1999, Hal Prince's original staging is the benchmark. We have very fond memories of the late Dennis Quilley's magnificent Sweeney in the first London production and Alan Armstrong's in a revival. These actors gave us a Sweeney whose voice, as well as his sanity, was stretched to breaking. This production is beautifully lacquered, a little too smooth where it should leave splinters in the hand. Sweeney's Act I breakdown perhaps lacks the breath-taking lurches that should counterpoint a collapsing mind. The pace of the latter part of Act II is so fast that the denouement seems almost perfunctory. There are a few weaknesses in the production: Sweeney's mad, razor-wielding catwalk dash into the audience looks a little silly in a venue of this size; Felicity Palmer's fine characterisation of Mrs Lovett is spoilt by a speaking voice too close to a Monty Python travesty; Sweeney's lovely song to his lost daughter Joanna, while he slits the throats of customers, is greeted with laughter rather than horror, but perhaps the chair can be blamed for this.
Some of this may be the fault of the piece itself for Sweeney Todd is not perfect, merely brilliant. And the packed house certainly loved it, giving it the ovation it deserves. Is Sweeney Todd an opera? Who cares? It's a triumph whatever you call it. LINKS to Curtain Up review of Sweeney Todd in Washington in 1999 by Les Gutman
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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