Welsh National Opera give a thrilling performance of Sweeney Todd at the Birmingham Hippodrome!
We arrived at the Birmingham Hippodrome full of excitement and anticipation, wondering what James Brining’s production of Sweeney Todd would bring. After three hours of thrilling action, comic songs and flashes of gore, we decided that in short, it was a three hours very well spent.
For those who, like Katie and Lou, have very little knowledge of this musical, the storyline is as follows: Sweeney Todd returns from banishment with revenge against Judge Turpin as his main objective. Mrs Lovett informs him that during the 15 years he was absent, his wife committed suicide and Johanna was taken in by the Judge. He opens a barber parlour above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop on Fleet Street and they come to an arrangement – she will help Todd avenge the loss of his wife and daughter in exchange for his victims’ bodies to solve the shortage of meat for her pies. As the weeks go by Mrs Lovett’s business flourishes and Todd’s barber shop draws in many customers, but people begin to become suspicious. Sweeney Todd’s obsession develops into a deadly and thrilling one and he seeks the help of Anthony – a sailor he befriended whilst he was away who is besotted with Johanna.
James Brining’s adaptation of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ jolted away from Stephen Sondheim’s musical interpretation. By using a hefty crate with a secretive opening to represent Todd’s barber shop, Brining modernised the play to demonstrate the industrial growth compared to the original setting. As Tim Burton’s film version advocates, Todd was a barber in the early Victorian era when the genre of Gothic was first arising. The character of Sweeney Todd was originally found in the story, ‘The Book of Pearls’ that was published in 18 parts; the Victorians were rumoured to be too scared of a full Gothic text. Considering this, Brining’s decision to depict the pie shop as a late twentieth century ‘chippy’ highlighted the relatable yet updateable connections to Victorian London. By apprising the play, Brining demonstrated how time has changed but the fear of an unknown killer is still alive.
Brining’s production concentrated avidly on themes of madness, particularly through the use of the chorus who were on stage for majority of the show- aiding the performance move seamlessly without incident. Each character within the chorus was captivating to watch notwithstanding most of them did not have spoken roles. While the audience entered the Hippodrome and took their seats, the chorus were already acting on stage which is arguably a more unusual directorial decision to make and one that we thoroughly enjoyed; it made us instantly curious and anxious for the performance to commence. Each character in the chorus was depicted as being mentally unstable which was established from the very beginning through movement alone. Later on in the performance, it is revealed that these are the people Johanna ends up with in the mental asylum. Personally, we thought that the inclusion of such a prominent chorus made Sweeney Todd much more attention-grabbing, besides the fact that they changed the set so slickly that you didn’t even clock that that was what they were doing.
David Arnsperger who played Sweeney, gave a truly fantastic performance. We watched his character develop from being slightly twitchy and suspicious to a full blown murderer and madman. Besides having an incredible voice, David was an extremely convincing Sweeney- let’s just say we wouldn’t want to come across him in a Barber shop in Birmingham! The actress that we really fell in love with was Janis Kelly who played the role of Mrs Lovett. She made all the witty one-liners hilarious and her provocative dancing was definitely something special. All in all, the National Welsh Opera did a wonderful job, and we’re truly sorry if you missed out!