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Sweeney Todd - Welsh National Opera Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Fresh Exciting Show On Tour At Birmingham Hippodrome
In a change from its usual heavy-weight opera productions, the Welsh National Opera (WNO) has opted for something a little different in its latest madness-themed season - a popular musical.

Sweeney Todd, WNO, welsh national opera, Birmingham Hippodrome
David Arnsperger stars as Sweeney Todd in the version by Welsh National Opera (WNO). Photo credit Johan Persson.


As musicals go, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is probably as close to an operetta as you are going to get. So, it actually worked well with the talented voices at the WNO, including its chorus, perfectly suited to the distinctive, edgy songs.

I caught the WNO's version of this blood-thirsty affair at Birmingham Hippdrome where it opened in what seemed to be an asylum (later revealed to be Bedlam mental health hospital) with an array of troubled characters adding an air of discontent before the action begins.

The story of the wrongly convicted barber, who returns to London after 15 years in jail to wreak revenge on London's population and the evil judge who ruined his life, has been transported into the 1980s under director James Brining.

It's masterfully translated into Thatcher's Britain in a London where Mrs Lovett's pie shop is more of an East End greasy spoon cafe; Judge Turpin's home has garish orange flock wallpaper; and conman Pirelli and his assistant Tobias turn up in a Robin Reliant with an uncanny similarity to Delboy and Rodney.

Sweeney Todd, WNO, welsh national opera, Birmingham Hippodrome
Paul Charles Clarke (Pirelli) and George Ure (Tobias Ragg) have an air of Only Fools And Horses about them. Photo credit Johan Persson.


There's also a clever use of shipping containers on raised platforms to compartmentalise the action between the barber shop and other venues, adding a multi-layered depth to the stage.

For those of you not au fait with the gruesome story, Sweeney Todd's anger and madness spills over into murder in the barber shop chair with the bodies being minced up and used in the pies of his neighbour and ally Mrs Lovett.

The serial killer only comes unstuck in a romantic sub-plot involving his estranged, now grown-up, daughter Johanna and a young sailor Anthony.

Sondheim's memorable musical perfectly fits into the WNO's madness season as it explores not only the madness of Sweeney Todd but of society as a whole. Its other bonus is that it is extremely funny, in a black comedy sense.

Sweeney Todd, WNO, welsh national opera, Birmingham Hippodrome
The demon barber of Fleet Street is a macabre musical featuring a wonderful Janis Kelly as Mrs Lovett


Scottish soprano Janis Kelly plays crafty Mrs Lovett, who is besotted with Sweeney. She plays it for laughs and gets a welcome, warm response from the audience. Kelly is wonderfully chipper and yet savage at the same time. It's a hard act to pull off but she does it seemlessly and with style, showing that she can do musicals as expertly as she does opera.

The strong cast also includes German baritone David Arnsperger in the lead role. It's the first time he has played Sweeney Todd but he's suitably moody and believable. His singing is his forte and you may be interested to know that he comes to Sweeney Todd after headlining in The Phantom Of The Opera.

Of the younger cast members, Jamie Muscato as Anthony and Soraya Mafi as Johanna both deserve a mention too as they make impressive work of Sondheim's most romantic pieces in the production.

Sweeney Todd, WNO, welsh national opera, Birmingham Hippodrome
Janis Kelly (Mrs Lovett) and WNO Chorus bring the blood thirsty tale to life. Photo credit Johan Persson


While Sweeney Todd is a dark, murderous tale, this version may have plenty of blood and gore, but is much more witty than frightening.

The UK tour of this production has already reached Oxford, Liverpool and Southampton and continues in Cardiff until November 29. If you have chance, I'd highly recommend catching it there while you can.

This Sweeney Todd is a fresh, exciting and riveting take on a well-loved musical that proves the breadth of the WNO's ability to spectacularly turn its hand to more then just classic opera.

Rating: 9/10

Sweeney Todd - UK Tour
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours including one interval
Age Guidance: 12

Tickets cost from £6.50 via The WNO website.

Birmingham Hippodrome - Until Saturday November 21

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff - 8 Oct - 29 Nov


Cast
Sweeney Todd - David Arnsperger
Mrs Lovett - Janis Kelly
Anthony Hope - Jamie Muscato
Johanna Barker - Soraya Mafi
Judge Turpin - Steven Page
Tobias Ragg - George Ure
Beadle Bamford - Aled Hall
Beggar Woman - Charlotte Page
Pirelli Paul - Charles Clarke
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Why? See An Exciting New Version Of Sondheim's Famous Musical
When: Until Saturday November 29 On Tour
Phone: 029 2063 6464
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome
Cost: From £6.50
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