Friday, February 08, 2019

Sweeney Todd – close shaves and revenge served hot in a production that emphasises societal complicity by ignoring injustice (NI Opera at Lyric until 23 February)

A London man is wrongly imprisoned and banished to Botany Bay. When he returns he finds that he has lost his wife and daughter, and seeks revenge on the errant Judge. Returning to work as a barber above a pie shop, he conspires with his landlord and while he gets down to the somewhat grizzly business of cutting heads, she boosts the turnover of her business with a popular range of unsavoury savouries.

I’m not a particular aficionado of Stephen Sondheim’s work, so I appreciated that NI Opera’s coproduction of Sweeney Todd with the Lyric Theatre makes the story easy to pick up and follow. The cast – a mix of traditional opera singers and musical theatre artists – have good vibrato-free diction and get their tongues around the more rapid-fire lyrics.

Steven Page’s rich baritone voice expresses the emotion the frustration of the troubled man. Julie Mullins gives Mrs Lovett a bawdy music hall feel and is rewarded with audience laughs from early on in the show. Together they make a great couple until the bending of the truth behind her moral pragmatism pushes an already distraught Todd over the edge.

It’s good to see NI Opera Studio’s Jessica Hackett back on stage playing Todd’s daughter Johanna. She is now the ward of the seedy Judge Turpin (Mark O’Regan) whose sits in judgement of other people’s crimes while yoked to his own misplaced and sleazy lust for the young girl supposedly in his care. The pantomime villain of the piece, I’m surprised the stalls don’t boo or hiss.

Opera performances are typically larger than life, with extreme characters taking extreme actions in extreme circumstances. Dorota Karolczak’s elaborate distressed costumes and macabre make-up stand out when compared with ‘normal’ musical theatre productions and really add to the signposting of each character’s state of mind. Wolfgang Göbbel sporadic use of UV lighting adds an extra layer to the set, though the sideways beams across the cramped stage often leave actors in the dark and don’t fully light Joanna’s otherwise immaculately white satin boudoir.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a story about how one act of injustice can lead to brooding resentment and revenging actions with far reaching consequences. As if to emphasise our societal complicity in seeing injustice but not getting off our backsides to do anything to challenge or stop it, Karolczak set design uses wooden panelling that merges in with the Lyric’s main auditorium, and at points the patterned lighting extends beyond the stage to include the audience in the action.

While the first act gets off to a good start, it’s as if the handle on the mincer gets stuck and there’s a sense of drag in the performance by the time the interval arrives after ninety minutes. While it may be sacrilege to suggest it, some judicious trimming of the top heavy first half might preserve the energy and balance out the less-musical scenes.

Act two abandons the set’s rather neat revolving door and instead turns the wooden wall into a giant sliderobe with characters and rooms appearing somewhat randomly as panels are smoothly slid aside. In particular, the bejewelled barber chair switches from left to right which confuses, and the use of amplification sometimes makes it hard to discern where the actors are on the multi-level stage, particularly when Todd and Lovett pop out at the very top.

Highlights in this production include the shave-off between Todd and the flamboyant leather cat-suited Italian extortionist Alolfo Pirelli (Matthew Cavan), the duets between Todd’s daughter and her nautical lover (John Porter), and the talented, emotionally-flawless ‘common man’ Tobias Ragg (Jack Wolfe) who gets caught up in the sordid tale.

While the organ prelude was underwhelming and needs turned up to eleven to quell audience chatter as the show opens, the nine-piece band under the baton of Sinead Hayes are effective in delivering the musically complex score.

The cutthroat effects are stylish and comically gruesome to avoid being too naturalistic until the final wounding of the haunted protagonist. Director Walter Sutcliffe has created a consistently stylish show that relates its story with heaps of operatic pizzazz but none of the genre’s supposed stuffiness.

Sweeney Todd runs in the Lyric Theatre until 23 February.

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