In spite of Bryn Terfel's towering presence and astounding vocal performance in the title role, this semi-staging of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd was mostly a dire mess.
In truth, some of the problem lies in the work itself, which has no heart whatsoever. Hugh Wheeler's book, which is based on a play by Christopher Bond, is little more than the seedy story of a man's pursuit of revenge and his ultimate destruction both of himself and most of the other characters. As the evening draws on, it becomes ever more tedious to watch Todd slitting people's throats in his attempt to find his long-lost wife (who he ends up killing) and daughter (who he also nearly kills). Then Todd is himself murdered and it's all over. Who cares? It is very difficult to be concerned about any of these characters - Todd and his sidekick Mrs Lovett are repulsive murderers, Judge Turpin and the Beadle are scarcely any better, Anthony and Todd's daughter Johanna are bland, stock young lovers, and Tobias is just too crazy to warm to.
Perhaps things would be different, were not Sondheim at his most ponderous in this show (made even more ponderous by this often leaden performance). By choosing to communicate the majority of the story via music, he sets himself the challenge of finding suitable plot-propelling recitative-type music, and fails utterly. 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' really palls after the third reprise, and the combination of its harmonic inertia and hyperactive melodic line (with too many words moving too quickly to take in the information being conveyed) makes it an ineffective vehicle for thrusting the narrative forward. 'Johanna' is vomit-inducingly trite in sentiment, while 'Green Finch and Linnet Bird' is exceptionally dull. I have no idea how this man can (according to the programme note) dare to slag off opera by saying that it is 'full of lingering moments' and that 'if people spend five minutes saying 'good night' it's too long', going so far as to condemn a masterpiece such as Tosca by claiming that 'even an aria as beautiful as 'Vissi d'arte' comes at a highly dramatic moment in the plot and I want the drama to continue', when his own songs almost without exception hold up the plot.
Towards the end of Act One, Sweeney is on the verge of killing Judge Turpin who holds his daughter captive. This would avenge him and resolve the plot. But he stops to sing a lyric duet with the Judge ('Pretty Women') and is interrupted before he can get on with the murder. It is a telling metaphor for the entire work, which cannot get on with the story because there is so much sentimental, unmotivated vocalising in the way.
This semi-staged production at the newly-refurbished Royal Festival Hall goes the whole hog in convincing me, at least, that the story was probably served more efficiently in the original play. There is not a single drop of blood in David Freeman's flaccid staging, which is neither dark enough nor funny enough. And although I respect the fact that many in the audience gave the performance a standing ovation and presumably loved it, I felt that all but two of the performers were nowhere near crisp enough in their delivery, most were vocally underwhelming, and all were over-amplified. Sometimes we might as well have been listening to a recording, because the sounds coming out of the speakers above the stage seemed to bear little relation to what was going on underneath.
Thank goodness for Terfel, a storming presence in the title part. He sang nearly everyone else off the stage and halfway up the Thames, in particular giving a blistering account of 'Epiphany', his great monologue. 'My Friends' was delivered with sensuality and 'The Barber and His Wife' was suitably poignant, while 'Pretty Women' was the highpoint, Terfel singing sensitively in this duet with Philip Quast, the excellent Judge Turpin and the only other wholly satisfying performer on stage.
Much as I admire some of her other work, I do not think Maria Friedman is remotely suited to the role of Mrs Lovett. She was not grotesque enough for the part, and she made the cockney pie-maker into a lame and harmless caricature rather than a sinister and wittily-observed character. More importantly, she does not have the lungs for the role, barely transmits most of the words across the footlights, and woefully undersings three of the best numbers in the piece - 'The Worst Pies in London', 'A Little Priest' (which I thought was failsafe but Friedman and Terfel were one bar out of synch with the orchestra during three long passages and barely a laugh was raised) and 'By the Sea'. Detail after detail was missed in a hardworking but disappointing portrayal.
Similarly, Daniel Evans doesn't have the vocal power for a big sustained song such as 'Not While I'm Around', though I found his acting as Tobias appropriately eccentric. Steve Elias was too camp to convince as the rough Beadle, and Rosemary Ashe overacted throughout, making her uncompelling as the mysterious Beggar Woman. I've seen Emma Williams give great performances in musicals before, but here she screeched her way through Johanna's lines and was out of tune much of the time, while Daniel Boys (familiar from the BBC's Any Dream Will Do competition to cast Joseph) made Anthony into even more of a cipher than Sondheim intends, delivering his lines efficiently but with little expression and resorting to clichéd gestures at every turn.
Stephen Barlow looked bored conducting the greatly reduced London Philharmonic Orchestra, which had been scruffily shoved into one corner and was unnecessarily amplified. The ensemble from the Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire was spirited enough, and the Maida Vale Singers had strong voices.
But the staging was truly atrocious. Even allowing for a small budget and the open acknowledgement that this was not a full production, it seemed pathetic to have an office swivel chair as Sweeney's 'throne' (on which he shaves and kills people). And could they not find a more convincing way of disposing of the bodies than tipping them off the chair onto a tea trolley? So much for this 'musical thriller', the subtitle of Sondheim's supposed masterpiece. Both my colleague and I were left completely cold by the experience.