Theatre Review: Sweeney Todd WNO, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Sweeney Todd WNO

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Opera
Genre: Thriller
Date: November 13 2015
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England

The tale of Sweeney Todd is an unusual one. Whether you’re familiar with the general plot, or if you remember the recent movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp, it cannot be denied that it is a complex and therefore difficult story to tell, especially considering that in some aspects Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is considered the good guy despite his horrific acts of self-pleasure and business practice.

On Friday November 13 (a fitting date, eh?), the Liverpool Empire Theatre played host to this current version, presented by the Welsh National Opera (WNO), and with the story largely told in the form of opera. It was a potentially risky move, not only in terms of being able to establish characters and plot developments purely through song (even “normal” musicals have breaks which rely on speech as opposed to song, especially at times of crucial moments), but also in terms of entertaining those who may not be familiar with the music-heavy aspect of opera, especially given the three-hour running time.

However, the WNO crew managed to deliver a truly unique experience which was never less than enjoyable and intriguing. Unlike recent musicals hosted by the Empire, this one has a more negative feel to it, implementing elements of horror and gore through the presentation of characters and their actions. The music actually proved to be a very effective technique in explaining the plot, and at times one almost didn’t realise that we were hearing songs, as the audience would be so familiar with the musical nature of the storytelling.

The show is set in London in the mid-1800s. Having been wrongly imprisoned for 15 years, the one-time Benjamin Barker (played here by David Arnsperger), previously a barber, discovers that his wife was murdered and his daughter taken to live with the corrupt judge, Judge Turpin (Steven Page). As revenge, Barker renames himself Sweeney Todd and becomes a barber again, with the intention of using his throat-slashing shaving methods to gain revenge on human society and, eventually, the Judge. Making money is equally as important, with the dead bodies converted into pies by Mrs Lovett (Janis Kelly), who brags that her pies are the worst in London, and the two eventually fall in love.

In the meantime, though, a sailor who accompanied Barker/Todd back to London, Anthony Hope (Jamie Muscato), discovers a young lady named Johanna Barker (Soraya Mafi) and falls in love with her – but, unbeknownst to him, she happens to be Todd’s unseen daughter. Judge Turpin ensures that Anthony and Johanna have no further contact, but disturbingly has plans to marry his own step-daughter of sorts to shield her from potential love interests like Anthony.

Over time, Todd meets the Judge again, but a murder attempt is ruined by Anthony’s untimely visit to the barber’s. Todd gets even angrier, but tries to focus on business and still vows that he will take revenge at some point. The teenage lovers continue to develop their feelings towards each other behind the judge’s back, and in the end a situation comes about whereby all loose ends will be tied. However, there’s still the matter of Todd’s murderous business practices, for which the plot’s central figure surely wouldn’t go unpunished … would he? There are other aspects to consider, like whether the Judge’s demise would truly satisfy Todd. And what of Mrs Lovett and her true motives, especially when it comes to Todd’s relationship situation? Is all as it seems?

There are several plot branches, but none which should confuse the audience as each tale is told with patience and with enough layers and detail to ensure that everyone’s motives are perfectly clear. Other characters also rise in prominence as the story develops, such as Tobias Ragg (George Ure), once an assistant to a dodgy barber but now a faithful if simple third wheel in Todd’s operation. The final scenes are dramatic, occasionally terrifying and also quite sad, but whatever way you look at it, no questions are left unanswered and each story arc is brought to a conclusion. Whether one would consider it a happy ending or not is highly debatable, but there is a definite feeling of finality once the curtain comes down to close the show.

I enjoyed this show, and as noted earlier even if you’re not a fan of opera, it is by no means off-putting, and if anything adds to the strength of the storytelling; the power of certain moments is enhanced by a cast of 20+ opera singers dramatically emphasising what has just occurred. The story is well-paced if a little long at three hours, but it does give the plot plenty of room to breathe and helps to perfectly set up the finale. The performances as a whole are very strong (the back-up opera singers are the most high-pitched and vocally-trained members of the cast, although their deliberately scary experience makes you want to look elsewhere during their numbers!), with the characters of Todd, Lovett and Tobias standing out based on performance, visuals and generally adding believability to their roles. George Ure is particularly good considering his young age and that his Tobias character makes a huge and dramatic transformation towards the conclusion; that he can effectively pull off what are almost two separate characters is rather impressive.

There were some parts of the show which I wasn’t so keen on. The serious nature and horror aspects greatly outweighed the comedic moments, so even at times when the mood was relaxed, the material was good, but it wasn’t humorous enough to have everyone laughing. Obviously, humour is only a secondary aspect of this show rather than being its main genre, but I still felt that the jokes and funny songs should have been stronger if the intention was to get a rise out of the crowd. I also felt that the side plot of the Judge seemingly wanting to fall in love with the girl he had raised almost from birth was quite unsettling, although I realise that this was an important part of the story (it certainly ensured that the Judge became a more reviled character). Again, had the situation been handled a bit differently, we the audience could have acknowledged the Judge’s intentions and not pondered their gravity, as opposed to almost being shown what would have amounted to rape under the circumstances. And whilst the show is aimed at those aged 12 and over, I think that some scenes were a little strong in their sexual nature (we didn’t see full-on sex, but we did see certain parts being touched, grabbed and even used as a dinner plate!) and in the bloody effects towards the end. It could have been more sexual and a lot gorier, but these elements were still strong enough that I feel a 16+ rating would have been more appropriate.

On the whole, I would definitely recommend the WNO adaptation of Sweeney Todd. There are some questionable aspects to the production, but they are outweighed by the story, the sets (which are simple but look near-perfect in the case of the barber’s shop, and raise laughs when the barber’s chair has a trap door attached to it for some victims) and the overall performances by both the cast and those solely employed to sing. No one song stands out, to be honest, but every song is worth listening to and some are vital to telling the story. If you’re unfamiliar with the tale of Sweeney Todd, without question you will get the full story here, and if you’re not a fan of opera, I wouldn’t let that put you off attending what I consider to be a strong musical show. Just take a careful look at the nameplate hanging outside the door the next time that you visit a barber shop.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good