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‘Sweeney Todd’ starring Emma Thompson at the London Coliseum

Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd

Following critically-acclaimed performances at New York’s Lincoln Center earlier this year,  Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson and International star Bryn Terfel reprise their roles as ‘Mrs Lovett’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’ in a concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s gloriously gruesome musical “Sweeney Todd”. With just 13 performances between the 30th of March and the 12th of April, tickets sold like hot cakes and I was very excited to make my first trip to the Coliseum to see this fantastic piece of theatre. I had already heard from numerous sources that Emma Thompson “steals the show” and I wasn’t remotely surprised that she proved me right on the night!

This semi-staged version of Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece with the English National Opera is quite something and from the moment you sit in your seat and see the orchestra begin to warm up on stage, you know you’re about to see something special. As the cast and chorus enter and take their places in front of the orchestra we seem to be in for a concert. However, a revolution breaks out as music-stands are violently overturned, firstly by Emma Thompson, and their formal attire is shredded in front of our eyes. This makes for a very dramatic opening and certainly during the first few minutes my jaw was on the floor! To begin with I thought Emma’s music stand had just fallen down and felt a bit nervous for her, but how silly of me to think that a true pro like Emma Thompson would mess that bit up!

 

‘A great deal of audience interaction’

One of the evening’s delights, in fact, is the way the characters all use whatever there is to hand to evoke Sondheim’s world. An upturned piano serves as a rostrum, Mrs Lovett cooks her filthy pies on top of a kettledrum and they are then served from a cymbal from the orchestra. Even the trunk in which the demon barber conceals his first victim has “English National Opera” clearly imprinted on the side. There was a great deal of audience interaction – in fact at one point Emma Thompson stole a shawl from a lady in the audience to use as part of her song. I hope she got it back.

It should be mentioned that not only does Bryn Terfel have a magnificent voice and a great deal of stage presence, he is also a strong enough actor to communicate all of Sweeney’s regret when his missions are finally accomplished. This is a hugely demanding role and I felt as though Bryn achieved the balance between portraying the dark side to Sweeney’s personality in contrast with the love he has for his wife Lucy and his daughter Johanna who he hadn’t seen for 15 years. When it is revealed at the end that the beggar woman that Sweeney kills was in fact his wife all along we genuinely feel his pain despite all the murders he has committed throughout the show.

Although I’m not the biggest fan of ‘Sweeney Todd’ as a musical in itself, and I wouldn’t rush to see it performed again by a different cast, I certainly did feel lucky to have witnessed such a creative and special performance of this piece. Emma Thompson is a real national treasure and it’s rare that we get to see her in the West End. There was a real buzz in the atmosphere and a collective feeling amongst the audience that we were all witnessing a very unique production.

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