Sweeney Todd - October 2015
A meaty musical
To disguise human meat you have to grind it in a food mincer three times before covering it in pastry and serving it in a savoury pie.
However despite this precision preparation occasionally you may find the odd fingernail or worse in the finished product.
Well that’s not a cookery tip you could learn by watching the Great British Bake Off.
But then Sweeney Todd which played the Bristol Hippodrome this week is full of gruesome culinary titbits as its bloody storyline dishes up grisly murders, lecherous villains and seedy characters.
This is a contemporary take on the Victorian melodrama which first hit the stage in the late 1970s.
And we all know it was the barber ‘whodunnit’, ably assisted by the frustrated middle-aged Mrs Lovett who lives downstairs.
The co-production between Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre and West Yorkshire Playhouse in association with Royal Exchange Theatre is a marvellous mixture of music hall and high class opera.
And it fits perfectly with this season’s WNO theme of madness.
The setting has all the Dickensian doom and gloom of the original story but is set in more modern times although this didn’t gel completely with a script which mentions prisoners being dispatched to Botany Bay.
Nasty Judge Turpin sends an innocent man to jail so he can make a play for the barber’s beautiful wife – who is that sad beggar women who appears to have lost her baby?
Returning after 15 years from Australia deranged Benjamin Barker reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd to seek revenge and find his family.
The blurb says ‘James Brining’s thrilling production is set in the late 1970s/early 1980s. It emphasises Sondheim’s message that it’s not just Sweeney who is insane. Through its corruption and inequality, society is totally mad’.
Dominating the darkened set are several huge shipping containers with corrugated iron shutters - you could almost smell the steam escaping from the below stairs stench as the victim’s final remains go into the huge bakehouse oven.
A cheap wooden kitchen chair is replaced by the blood red leather recliner in the second half when the greasy spoon cafe begins to look like an American diner lit with fairy lights as more customers crave the tasty morsels on sale
In his WNO debut German born David Arnsperger in the title role was pitch perfect and his shaven head added just the right amount of menace although surprisingly his Cockney accent had a certain Welsh lilt!
For a bald-head bloke his sex appeal wasn’t lost on his partner in crime – love it – get it?
Internationally famed Glaswegian soprano Janis Kelly is also making her WNO debut as the lust interest and pie-maker extraordinaire.
She appears as a comedic Gavin and Stacey dropout mixed with a good dollop of deceitful compassion as portrayed by horrid Miss Hannigan in Annie.
Miss Kelly is back next year for another razor sharp part as Berta in The Barber of Seville at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms.
Steve Page as Judge Turpin turns out to be a predatory paedophile and religious zealot who enjoys flagellation while the sleazy Teasy-Weasy-style hairdresser called Pirelli played by Paul Charles Clarke is revealed as a Liverpudlian blackmailer whose mode of travel is a clapped-out Robin Reliant of the All Fools & Horses variety.
Mancunian rising star Soraya Mafi did well as Johanna although forgive the pun but there isn’t much meat on this role.
Fellow Scot George Ure is the simpleton apprentice an artless and motherless young man who would quake in his boots facing Sir Alan Sugar in the boardroom.
As a vocalist George has appeared on ITV with Michael Bublé and Kylie Minogue as part of Rod Stewart’s Christmas special and has appeared previously at Wales Millennium Centre in the role of Boq as an original cast member of Wicked.
The finale is superbly gory and fittingly the show has a 12+ age warning with its smutty street language and ‘behaviour of a sexual nature’.
Sometimes it looks like a scene from Oliver! but there is no dancing in this production just movement performed with precision by the Glee-style chorus.
For me the sinister nursery rhyme ditties, the bedlam of the asylum, the hooker and Pretty Ladies song by Stephen Sondheim made me smile.
The use of long shadows to create suspense and minimal props oh and the caged bluebird...have I given it all away?
Conductor James Southall joined the company on stage for a well deserved standing ovation at the Friday night performance - that was except Judge Turpin who got booed!
It took me a while to work up an appetite to enjoy seeing director Tim Burton's 2007 film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street starring his wife Helen Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman.
The subject matter isn’t very appetising and I approached the WNO show with the same reluctance fearful it would be a pale pink adaptation.
I will put in on record I loved both the film and the stage show and would willingly ask for more.
WNO can be credited for introducing me to opera and making me love it – make sure you catch them when they next return to the Bristol Hippodrome.
A lively energetic performance in which the cast gave their all.
Mrs Lovett (Janis Kelly) led the way filling the stage with her larger than life personality, ably balanced by a morose and brooding Sweeney (David Arnsperger).
There was enough gore to be convincing but not to become vicariously gruesome.
The contrasts between the almost angelic Johanna (Soraya Mafi) and the sad beggar woman (Charlotte Page) underlined their different characters as James Muscato gave us a lovesick Anthony and George Ure and innocent Tobias.
No one could like pompous Judge Turpin (Steven Page) while Aled Hall as Beadle showed both humour and menace.
The chorus worked hard and effectively at setting the ‘lunatic’ scene and responding convincingly to the action.
And it would not do to forget the largely unseen orchestra conducted so ably by James Southall supporting, guiding and underling the action.
While the diction - no surtitles as this performance was in English - was not always as clear as it might be, it did not detract from the pace of the action.
A most enjoyable performance that I would not hesitate to recommend.
retired Nailsea head teacher
Preview: Descent into madness
The Welsh National Opera company returns to the Bristol Hippodrome for a several nights themed on Madness.
The three fascinating stories show in different ways what happens when people go beyond breaking point.
They explore what it means to be human, celebrating the joy, beauty and sensitivity as well as our moments of fragility, pain and rage.
On Tuesday, October 20, at 7pm it is I Puritani, Wednesday, October 21, at 7.15pm its Orlando and from Thursday to Saturday, October 22-24, also at 7.15pm it is Sweeney Todd.
The new production of Bellini’s I puritani travels between two historical conflicts – the Troubles in 1970s Belfast and the English Civil War of the 17th century.
Let the scenery, stratospheric showstoppers, beautiful singing (bel canto) and costume changes transport you away as you’re drawn in to a thrilling story of love and loss.
Handel's Orlando is a debut performance set in World War II.
This stylishly updated and critically acclaimed production by Harry Fehr is set in a hospital.
Through Handel’s masterful baroque score we explore human suffering and a hero’s descent into madness.
And to end the Madness Season, WNO present Stephen Sondheim’s dark yet delicious musical. Sweeney Todd has all the emotional impact of opera and deserves to be performed by the award-winning chorus and orchestra.
This production combines moments of exquisite comedy and searing drama set in the late 1970s.
Tickets from £11.40.