Sweeney Todd - the Victorian Melodrama

Opera della Luna's latest production of Sweeney Todd will show you the barber as you have never seen or heard him before.

A hot-blooded show that runs cold

This Sweeney could not be further from Sondheim; it is an adaptation of George Dibdin Pitt's 1847 penny dreadful play, The String of Pearls. It's an admirably ambitious task, with Victorian music plodding away throughout and opera singers acting in a script that requires too little of their epic voices.

Appropriately staged in Wilton's Music Hall, the atmosphere is super for a spooky scare or two. Wilton's is a stamp of history pressed into London, and this Sweeney Todd was an excellent programming choice that harks back to the music hall's history. The peeling paint and crumbling proscenium offer an inviting portal into the history of the capital; this show could have been a perfect match.

Yet, this Sweeney Todd is dated and drab. The audience gets no sense of the murderer's motives, and it is unclear what the muddled production is trying to achieve. The complicated plot twists and turns in and out of London's sewers, barbers, bakeries and boats. There are some golden moments, as a muffin man (Matthew Siveter) tells us with a bite, "I've heard of having fingers in many pies, but that is too many fingers in one pie."

This is not a panto parody, though, and any sense of scare is sapped within the first killing. Director Jeff Clarke's decision to project the murders onto Elroy Ashmore's set is a jarring one. The cinematic effect clashes with the music hall setting. Katie Mitchell this is not and, indeed, the projections are the only thing that feels current.

The cast of seven work hard to multirole a mighty character list. Paul Featherstone's Lupin is expertly creepy, and Caroline Kennedy's Tobias and Mrs Oakley is an impressive performance of two halves. It is Lynsey Docherty's marvellous maid, Cecily, who rules the night. Her droll comedy fits the East End setting with enviable ease, and when she starts to sing, her soprano fills the hall with a magical tone.

The strange lack of songs makes this a frustrating watch, however. We only get a sense of the casts' collective sound in the final scene. Despite the eleven-strong orchestral band and stunning vocals, the pace is sluggish, slowed down by air doors and squeaking boxes that take the drama out of melodrama.

It's 2h40 and the second act is increasingly fun, with the audience able to boo and hiss the villain. But the pace struggles to pick up and panto interaction is not enough to save this hot-blooded show that ultimately runs cold.

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The Blurb

The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared on the stage in 1847, in a melodrama at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, in the east end of London. 

The String of Pearls, as it was called, was based on a popular “penny dreadful” serialised story. Theatres like the Britannia at that time had large permanently employed orchestras, and the first Sweeney Todd would have been performed with a score of orchestral music. 

Opera della Luna’s new production restores the musical element of story-telling with an orchestra of ten musicians, and music penned by British opera composers of the Victorian age. Come and be shocked, terrified, and amazed; and most important of all: hiss the villain, - the notorious Fiend of Fleet Street! 

Please note this is NOT a production of the musical by Stephen Sondheim.

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