Sweeney Todd

(Opera Queensland)


A good recipe for a macabre musical extravaganza:

Take one obsessive and vengeful barber. Add several liberal helpings of entrepreneurial neighbour with a need for love (and also for pie filling). Add to the mix multiple corpses, some thwarted passion and a dash of rape to taste. Stir well and add a sprinkling of debauched judge. The flavour of long-lost daughter and insane asylum will slowly come through. Allow the mixture to cook for two-and-a-half hours in a comfortable theatre for satisfying and meaty results.

Sweeney Toddis a difficult concoction to quantify. Originally a hugely popular 19th century newspaper serial, the story was written into Tony-award winning musical form by Stephen Sondheim in the 1970s. Labelled a “musical thriller”, it might also be called Victorian melodrama, slasher-horror, black comedy, and even almost-opera, as it’s about four-fifths sung.

Whatever genre you choose, Sweeney Todd’s story is definitely not a frothy and sweet one. Renowned stage director Gale Edwards and her well-qualified production team have obviously savoured this opportunity to produce something darker and more confronting than the usual Opera Queensland menu, and their attention to detail has produced flavourful results.

Escaped convict and barber Sweeney Todd (Steven Page) returns to London in a foul mood. He is intent on avenging himself upon Judge Turpin (Donald Cant), the man who falsely convicted him, destroyed his wife, and stole their child. The ever-practical pie-shop proprietress Mrs Lovett (Judi Connelli) reunites Sweeney Todd with his razors, and while waiting for an opportune time to wreck havoc upon the judge, they come up with an horrific plan. Sweeney will provide Mrs Lovett with the crucial ingredient for her meat pies. How? By giving his customers the “closest shave” they will ever get….

Sondheim’s trademark acerbic musical language and evocative music style are a superb accompaniment to this direct and confronting fare. His music is rarely “hummable” it’s beyond the realm of the catchy tune into something deeper, beefier, and, to this reviewer’s palate, more satisfying. In this production of Sweeney Todd conductor Julia De Plater expertly leads the Queensland Orchestra through some of Sondheim’s most complex work and leaves us with the contented feeling of a gory tale well-told.

Page as Sweeney and Connelli as Mrs Lovett are marvellous foils for one another. His brooding murderousness and her cheery amorality balance perfectly and make for such juicy highlights as “A Little Priest” and “The Worst Pies in London”. Donald Cant, best known for his 500 performances in The Phantom of the Opera, plays the role of the depraved judge with a deliberate and evil relish that is delightful. Grant Smith (Pirelli & Jonas Fogg) is another performer who should be commended on his commitment to character during this production, no matter how screwball that character might be, or how many dubious accents are required.

Peter England’s set design for Sweeney Todd is truly incredible, with dingy browns and cunning manipulations of perspective giving an authentic Victorian-London feel. The multiple-personalitied central rotating set piece is a masterpiece of design on which to feast one’s eyes, and the slight technical difficulties on the night I was there did not detract in any meaningful way from the overall mouth-watering effect.

A final small word of caution to those who are ready to rush out and enjoy this banquet of grotesque musical delights: apparently, certain seats near the wings are not ideal for viewing the stage during this production. Also, in some parts of the theatre amplification can produce a more tinny, hollow sound, so do choose your seats with care. Obviously there are some “mature” themes (i.e. rape, murder and cannibalism to name but a few), so do not attend if these ingredients could offend!

— Ruth Bridgstock
(Performance seen: Mon 13th October 2003)