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Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Secomb’

Opera companies are attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece and it’s easy to see why, though it’s been to mixed success. I’ve seen it done by Opera North and at Covent Garden. This year, ENO imported a New York production, though more of a concert, and with only one kosher opera singer. Now it’s Welsh National Opera’s turn. I’ve also seen ten productions by theatre companies (two of them four times each) so you could say I’m familiar with and fond of the piece! WNO is also my ‘opera home’.

The production is an import from the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a sort of industrial building with two double-height containers for the barber’s shop and Joanna’s bedroom. The chorus are the inhabitants of Bedlam. The setting isn’t Victorian, but more recent, with hints of the 50s / 60s in some of the props and costumes. One of its best ideas is fake barber / faux Italian Pirelli’s use of a Reliant Robin. The stage seemed much further away than it has when I’ve sat in similar seats for the opera on many occasions here before.

One of the chief pleasures of opera company productions is the musical standards and here the orchestra shine. Even though I’ve seen it work perfectly well with little more than a piano, the full orchestra brings out every nuance of the score. Using opera singers is sometimes less successful, though Janis Kelly is a fine Mrs Lovett and Steven Page an excellent Judge Turpin, neither falling into the opera singer trap of putting vocal perfection above lyrical clarity. Kelly is a good actress, with good comic timing too, and Page is suitably intimidating, with great presence. I also liked Paul Charles Clarke’s Pirelli. Soraya Mafi was less successful as Joanna, with a voice that was too high and too operatic. During God, That’s Good the chorus chewed the lyrics as opera choruses sometimes do.

Three roles are cast by musical theatre performers, with London fringe favourite Jamie Muscato a particularly good Anthony and George Ure delivering as Tobias, particularly in his duet with Mrs Lovett, Not While I’m Around. The weak link, I’m afraid, is David Amsperger’s Sweeney, with an inappropriate mannered performance style and nowhere near enough menace (though I have been spoilt by having Jeremy Secomb staring me in the face and scaring the pants off me on four occasions in the past thirteen months in Tooting Arts Club’s Pie Shop Sweeney). He also lost a few too many lyrics when it mattered, notably in A Little Priest.

Good to see (at a fraction of the price of ENO’s unstaged American import), but overall both the Twickenham and Tooting Sweeney’s of the last year or so have delivered more. Perhaps its time for opera companies to stick to opera?

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My personal history with Sweeney Todd goes back 29 years to a production of Christopher Bond’s play (which Sondheim saw in its original Stratford East production and on which he based his musical) in the now defunct Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green. For the last 21 years I’ve followed the musical around London and to Leeds and Chichester, including the NT, Opera North and the Royal Opera. For my 12th production / 15th performance, I only had a 20 minute walk to Harrington’s Pie & Mash shop (106 years old – London’s oldest) – well, actually the barbers across the road where we assembled for drinks beforehand. A doubly delicious bit of site specific theatre, but so much more than that. This is up there with the best of them.

With an audience of just 32 in the shop’s snug bench seating, this redefines intimate theatre. The whole space is used – on and behind the counter, the stairs and behind the stairs, the tables at which we’re seated. You have to twist and turn a bit, but the tale has never been more thrillingly told. Characters turn up to surprise and shock you, Sweeney’s stare chills you and Mrs Lovett gets laughs where they’ve never been before and bigger ones where they have. By necessity, some things usually staged are here offstage, but so inventively that it hardly matters (and no washing clothes when I got home, unlike the recent Twickenham experience).  Director Bill Buckhurst and designer Simon Kenny have turned every problem and restriction the space presents into dramatic opportunities and a masterclass in intimate staging. It’s scarier and funnier.

I think what blew me away most though was the sky high musical standards. MD Benjamin Cox on piano, with help from occasional violin and clarinet, played the score brilliantly (adding yet more weight to the current debate about awards for Musical Directors). In addition to his exceptional acting, Jeremy Secomb’s vocals were outstanding. Siobhan McCarthy is a terrific Mrs Lovett and I relished her expressions at close quarters and savoured every syllable of her show-stopping song A Little Priest. Nadim Naaman and Grace Chapman are wonderful as Anthony & Johanna, the former singing Johanna and the latter Green Finch & Linnet Bird beautifully. I’ve seen and enjoyed much of Ian Mowat’s work and his performance as Beadle Bamford is one of his best, and one of the best Beadle’s I’ve seen. Duncan Smith has great presence to go with a great voice; a fine Judge Turpin. Pirelli played by a woman must be a first and Kiara Jay, who doubles up as the beggar woman, is excellent. Joseph Taylor makes much more of Tobias, very moving in his Not While I’m Around duet with Mrs Lovett. I’ve run out of superlatives just as I’ve run out of cast, but they were all so good they have to be mentioned.

This would be a good Sweeney in a black box, but it becomes a great one in this space. I feel privileged to have been one of what must only be c.1000 people to see this landmark production. I wish Sondheim could as I’m convinced he’d adore it. A triumph for Tooting Arts Club, a nomadic institution like those other two national theatres in Scotland & Wales, and its producer Rachel Edwards and indeed for Tooting!

 

 

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