Sweeney Todd is a brilliant musical reintroduction to the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, with an orchestra, ensemble and large chorus easily accommodated on the huge stage, but the space is also a curse which can make the semi-staged concert performance look cobbled together and awkward (the open stage is not designed for theatre, but concerts). I have no hesitation in praising the singing, but direction by David Freeman was a more uneven. His production in modern dress (with the chorus dressed like grungy goths), and certainly his office chair substitute for Sweeney’s fancy barber’s chair, made me yearn for a lavish fully produced version in a proper theatre, rather than on a huge dais, but keeping the beefed up sound that only an opera house or concert hall can give. Alas, an impossible dream (the Royal Opera proving they can’t ‘do’ musicals with a limp Sweeny in 2003 is a case in point).
The talents of Bryn Terfel as the demon barber of Fleet Street tower over this production, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra coming a close second (conducted by Stephen Barlow). Terfel is a titan of the opera house (he certainly doesn’t need the amplification provided), his powerful and rich voice giving bold life to the 1978 ‘musical thriller’ by Stephen Sondheim. Terfel is not an actor, and few people would go to an opera house expecting much in that respect, but in a plot driven musical like this, you do need some talent for acting. Although no one will be coming out of this performance clamouring for Terfel’s Hamlet, he did acquit himself reasonable well, his voice making up for the slight lack of finesse on occasion.
The other principal characters are mostly played by musical theatre talent. Maria Friedman gives a brilliant performance of the amoral Mrs Lovett, helping Sweeney turn his murderous lust into a profitable line in hot pies. The cruel Judge Turpin is exquisitely played by the distinctive voiced Philip Quast (who’s turn as Sweeney is surely due soon?). The Judge’s sycophantic minion, Beadle Bamford, is played by Steve Elias with aplomb, his rendition of Tower of Bray, particularly pleasing. Daniel Boys (recently seen in Any Dream Will Do, on BBC1) plays the love struck sailor Anthony, his forbidden love Johanna, is winsomely played by Emma Williams. Both Williams and Boys are in fine voice, but neither part gives them opportunity for much character development, particularly the thankless and underwritten role of Johanna. Mrs Lovett’s sweet young assistant is played by Daniel Evans, on paper not a natural fit for the part, but in performance, giving an excellent comic performance, blonde wig and all. The small but crucial role of the beggar woman is ably filled by Rosemary Ashe, another rather thankless part. Adrian Thompson gives us a lovely comic performance as the fake Italian barber Pirelli, his operatic voice perfect for the exaggerated character he is portraying. This wonderful cast is backed up by the Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire, with some singularly excellent students acting as the ensemble, and the Maida Vale Singers as the chorus.
Despite my slight disappointment over the production, this is a concert version and I really shouldn’t complain too much. Terfel’s voice alone was worth the price of admission, the main problem being you can’t really hear anyone else when he is in full flow, such is the rapture of his singing. I think Sweeney is a superb piece (maybe even Sondheim’s best), and after hearing it on a small scale in the West End recently, it’s nice to be reminded of the music on a grander scale.