Umbrella-less, I dashed through the rain last night over to the Royal Festival Hall. A ticket had tumbled into my lap for the production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel (who I gather is Big in Opera) as the Demon Barber. I’ve not been inside the RFH since they reopened the place after its lengthy refurbishment and I was surprised to see bits of scaffolding and carts of builders’ bits-and-pieces still tucked into corners. There was also a horrendous queue for the bar so I had to content myself with a coffee. I then took said coffee over to the window and watched the rain lash the Thames for a while as I waited for the show to start.
Given that this was billed as a concert production – a “semi-staging” – it was far more elaborate than I was expecting, with the performers all in costume (including the choir from the Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire, whose attire suggested that Victorian London was more heavily populated with Goths then I’d ever realised) and quite a few props. The musicians had been swept into one corner of the stage, allowing the action to play out in the remaining space. Terfel, who had played the role before in Chicago, was superb – a booming, damaged, dangerous man. And Maria Friedman was a delight as Mrs Lovett the pie-shop owner, bawdy and brash in her vile lace leggings. The blend of opera voices and those more suited to musical theatre worked surprisingly well.
I’m a bit of a Sondheim novice but I was gripped from start to finish, and I loved the way the absence of set allowed the story and the singing to speak for themselves, the way it left them nothing to hide behind. My friend Simon who knows far more about such things was muttering about amplification and acoustics, but I was too swept up in things to care about such subtleties.
A programme footnote proudly proclaims that the pies that appear in this production - and are eaten by a number of the actors during the performance - have been provided by the new branch of Canteen that’s just opened under the Royal Festival Hall. Given that the pies, at times, are said to contain fingernails, pussy-cats and actual bits of people, I’m not entirely convinced by the intelligence of this marketing strategy.