Theatre review: Sweeney Todd at the Coliseum

Meat and murder provide a duet to relish, says Bridget Galton

You wait years for a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s cautionary fable of cannibalism and revenge, then two turn up at once. Like the meat supply in Victorian London it’s a feast or a famine: Tooting Arts Club’s intimate offering in a mocked up Shaftesbury Avenue pie shop, versus this full-throated concert performance in London’s biggest theatre, with ENO orchestra and rumble-toned tenor Bryn Terfel stropping his razor as the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Director Lonny Price’s playful, powerful production toys with audience expectations. Terfel and co-star Emma Thompson troop on in evening dress; musical scores on stands in front of a grand piano – before kicking over the flower arrangements and tearing off their garb. Bloody handprints peek through tailcoats and graffiti slogans are daubed as the tale of a barber, transported to Australia by a corrupt judge who lusts after his wife, unfolds between the ranks of the on-stage orchestra.

Returned to London after 15 years to discover his wife raped and daughter adopted by Judge Turpin, Sweeney sets himself up above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop to stew on revenge. Before long a solution to the meat shortage presents itself.

Thompson’s Lovett complements the lugubrious, lumbering Terfel, who struggles with the physical demands and quicksilver lyrics of Sondheim’s ‘musical thriller’.

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As deft a physical comedienne as she is a clear-voiced if limited singer, Thompson’s timing is impeccable. She hilariously upstages everyone, but misses the pathos her West Hampstead neighbour Imelda Staunton brought to Lovett’s yearning affection for Todd.

But for all her baton-stealing antics, when Terfel plants his feet and focuses on delivering Sweeney’s howl of anger and anguish, backed by the full might of the ENO chorus, he’s mesmeric.

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Not all of Price’s staging is successful, too much is played far upstage in the cavernous Coliseum. But he wisely casts Olivier-award bothering musical theatre talent around the central duo. You won’t see a better Judge Turpin, Pirelli or beggar woman than Philip Quast, John Owen-Jones and Rosalie Craig in all the pie shops in London.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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