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Sweeney Todd at the Birmingham Hippodrome Review

SweeneyToddOperaSweeney Todd
Birmingham Hippodrome

19-21 November 2015


Reviewed by Katy Nettleton

Sweeney Todd fills a void with a bloody and blind quest for vengeance. Those who enter his shop get more than a close shave. The unlucky ones ending up in Mrs Lovett’s rather unsavoury pies, proving you are what you eat.

Sondheim’s masterpiece is by turns hugely funny, terrifying and deeply sad. It works on a number of different levels, is complex but always engaging. In a scene of high comedy, Mrs Lovett explains why hers are ‘The worst pies in London’. In another, Sweeney is reunited with the razor blades he left behind when he was wrongfully imprisoned. There are few scenes like it. On one hand it is disturbing – he regards the razors as his friends and begins to be distanced from the real world – but it is also strangely moving. The musical’s finale is devastating but also hugely cathartic.

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. See Sweeney Todd and you’ll find that it buries itself in your consciousness and refuses to leave. Sweeney Todd has all the emotional impact of the greatest operas. It deserves to be performed by the forces of our Chorus and Orchestra.

This was my first experience of opera… and I wasn’t disappointed!

I created a bucket list a few years back of things I would like to try and do, with going to see an opera being part of it. What previously put me off going to an opera was the language barrier (another bucket list item is to learn different languages!) and so when I saw Sweeney Todd was coming to Birmingham I thought this would be a great starter opera; for me it was a bridge between musical theatre and the opera.

The cast started coming on the stage as we were arriving in the theatre; I loved this little touch. It made you want to know what was going on and already got your attention. This would have been confusing if you hadn’t read the synopsis before…

As soon as the first song started it was spine-tingling. The way in which the chorus and main singers came together it was awe-inspiring. The control, clarity in voices and tones were just amazing. As this was my first introduction to opera I didn’t know what to expect. You see the singers such as Pavarotti and Katherine Jenkins on TV but you could never really fully appreciate their voices and the way in which they can control the emotions you are feeling when watching a show. I felt anger, love, hate, lust, revenge, anguish and hope (to just name a few!).

The show wasn’t without it flaws (if I am honest), with a few of the songs being hard to hear (I presume this is due to many of the singers not having a personal microphone on them. This did have an impact when there were 2 singers singing at the same time but different lyrics, as I was often trying to “listen in” to just one rather than appreciate the moment and the staging etc. The other slight critique I have is that as I was sat at the left hand side of the stalls there was quite a lot of acting and singing on this side; which I was unable to see due to the view being interrupted with the balconies and the height of the stage / props. This only became a problem in the second half as not much was run down the left side (as I viewed) in the first half – if it had we would have asked to see if there was any other seats available for the second half. If I am being completely picky I did find the accent of Sweeney Todd (David Arnsperger) a little annoying at times as it changed slightly throughout the performance – but this is me picking flaws with what was amazing performance.

Back to the performance… The singers were amazing, the way in which many of the songs built with the chorus was central to the production. Often the chorus being on stage was tied into a prop or stage change, which went mostly un-noticed due to listening to the singers and your feelings been taken onto the next scene. I was taken back to the 1970s with the way in which the cast dressed, the staging and the way in which the props were used. This to me makes a show… the way in which all parts come together to share a story and I was not let down.

I do think, that the “gory” parts were less ”gory” and more humorous with the way in which the blood was “popped” in mouths and spurted out of tubes… But with live productions it is hard to adopt a gruesome 3D effect you would have if you watch a film in the cinema with surround sound… But saying that my audience neighbour was jumping in her chair in these scenes and stating it was making her “feel sick” so I may be in the minority with my opinion.

Overall, you need to read the synopsis before the performance to understand what the production is about but you won’t be disappointed. I may once have been an opera novice, but I am keen to go and see more and for me this was a perfect introduction to an opera. I did find myself checking my watch a couple of times, so for me 3 hours was a bit too long.

I couldn’t write a review without commented on the voices of; Mrs Lovett (Janice Kelly) – faultless and breath-taking. Johanna Barker (Soraya Mafi) portrayed such innocence and vulnerability with a true depth to her voice, Anthony Hopes’ (Jamie Muscato) character transformed from a young man seeking love to one who stood out and took control as did his voice. Finally Beggar Woman’s’ (Charlotte Page) performance was emotional at times and she truly played her character well, you felt her pain, sorrow and hope. Finally the chorus… the way in which at least 40 voices came together to build a song, to take words and emotions to the next level and make the audience feel the sorrow, the love, the hatred was in itself a triumph.

Overall I would give this a 4.5 out of 5 and a perfect introduction to the opera.

Rating: 4.5/5

The Welsh National Opera is currently of tour with Sweeney Todd, for more information and tour dates visit www.wno.org.uk/event/sweeney-todd.

For other shows at the Birmingham Hippodrome visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com.

Birmingham Hippodrome, Hurst St, Southside, Birmingham, B5 4TB | 0844 338 5000

4 half Star

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