Maybe the Mayor of London should ban Sweeney Todd? With elections looming do we really need negative propaganda which describes this city as ‘filled with shit’ and ‘not worth what a pig could spit’. Everyone has a black heart or a base motive, and after three hours of undiluted mayhem the stage is littered with corpses and only three named Londonists remain unslaughtered.

Perhaps English National Opera, recipient of a controversial £12 million Arts Council subsidy should have pondered this before investing in some American’s raucously pessimistic vision of our fair city? Of course it’s set in the past, but surely even in the early 19th century the routine acceptance of murder on a daily basis, or Londoners’ recourse to cat-eating and cannibalism during periods of rising food prices was never so casual as in Stephen Sondheim’s dystopian fantasy?

It would be nice to think Mr Sondheim intended satire in his depiction of London’s economic strata ‘At the top of the hole sit a privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo, turning beauty to filth and greed…’ – although if you look how the papers are reporting the election campaign, it’s still painfully relevant.

There’s irony certainly, in that the ‘privileged few’ at the Coliseum are forking out £155 for this semi-staged production while the ‘vermin’ in the balcony, to whom some of the action is beamed on TV screens, got in for a tenner. But mostly, it’s a spendy night out.

I jest. It’s great, obviously: Emma Thompson is not a trained singer and Bryn Terfel not a trained actor but somehow they get away with it and the audience from the paupers in the gallery to the rhinestone-encrusted matrons in the stalls were on their feet at the end. Thompson’s character Mrs Lovett both drives the scheming plot and carries the comedy while Terfel broods and glowers, releasing his dark rich bass-baritone to caress Sondheim’s creepy cadences and soaring melody. Is this opera? Who cares, some of the West End wendies in the supporting cast shone, if conceivably possible, brighter than the headline stars – John Owen-Jones, long-term Valjean and Bryn’s Welsh mate, was outstanding as flamboyant rival barber Pirelli, and Philip Quast, long-term Javert, made Judge Turpin seem less monstrous and more fallibly human than any other recent interpretation. Bonus points for self-flagellation centre stage, too.

Since everything is miked, there’s some cloudiness in the sound and lyrics are lost. The staging places the actors amid the 58-strong orchestra, masking scenic detail and making the clustering of the supporting cast occasionally look like late night shopping at the diagonal crossing in Oxford Circus. But close your eyes, and you would be hard pressed to hear Sondheim’s work given a more illustrious delivery.

 

This review originally written for Londonist.com