Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller Sweeney Todd is the first of a new series of musicals to be staged by the ENO at the grand and beautiful 2200 seat London Coliseum, original home of the classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the raft of expensive tickets for this Sweeney were snapped up well in advance by a bloodthirsty audience keen to see the celebrity pairing of opera star Bryn Terfel and award-winning actress Emma Thompson, in a 39-strong company, alongside a 58-piece orchestra under the baton of musicals maestro David Charles Abell.

I last saw Abell at the baton in Sweeney in a thrillingly staged production – featuring a two-tier set and bucketloads of blood – at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris. The beauty of Sweeney Todd, like all great musicals, is that it can be seen multiple times in multiple ways – a devastatingly chilling close-up production is currently playing in a pop-up pie shop a stone’s throw away from the Coliseum on Shaftesbury Avenue. The ENO Sweeney is somewhere between these two extremes as it’s semi-staged, with the orchestra on stage.

The opening sequence is an amusing ‘turning on its head’ of the formal concert situation which sees the gradual unravelling of an obviously darker story. The graffitied backdrop suggests unrest and revolution in the air too. There are some effective references to the ENO’s surroundings – a large ENO container becomes the chest where young Johanna hides in Sweeney’s barber’s ‘shop’, a raised platform in the middle of the orchestra, and the iconic barber’s chair is even reduced to a numbered auditorium-style seat. However, there’s rather a lot – too much – left to the imagination, as the dishing out of Mrs Lovett’s iconic pies is done via an empty outstretched hand, and, with no shute to dispatch the dead bodies, actors whose throats are cut are forced to walk off stage.

The sparse staging focusses even more attention on the central relationship which is always key to this piece. Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney has great presence and physicality – he certainly looks the part – and is particularly strong in later scenes as he broodingly descends into madness. Vocally, Terfel is on good form – his early hymn of love to Sweeney’s razors, ‘My Friends’, is particularly strong – although his native accent occasionally slips through the dialogue.

Thompson, on the other hand, brings great comedy to the part of Mrs Lovett, resisting the temptation to go over the top. It is, of course, a rare treat to see her on stage and she brings a fine character voice to the music that suits her interpretation. There’s a clever bit of role reversal in the ‘By The Sea’ sequence that I haven’t seen before in this scene, as Mrs Lovett cuts Sweeney’s hair, which Thompson pulls off with aplomb.

Two subsidiary characters are given more meat than usual (no pun intended) – as Matthew Seadon-Young gives Anthony more of a steely edge in his quest to find and rescue his lover, and Rosalie Craig brings great clarity and purpose to the role of the Beggar Woman who has a place in Todd’s past.

The size of the London Coliseum and the nature of the staging, means that sightlines are sometimes poor, even from stalls seats, but sound quality was high, with the distinctive parts of the incredibly contrapuntal duet ‘Kiss Me’ more clearly defined than in previous productions I have seen. The large ensemble (with talent such as Alistair Brookshaw from The Grand Tour in their midst) weave in and out continuously, as onlookers to the central action and clamouring enthusiastically for Mrs Lovett’s pies in the ‘God That’s Good’ sequence at the top of the second half.

Director Lonny Price describes this Sweeney as ‘a large scream on a large canvas’. Indeed, a bloody hand imprint appears on the backdrop against the sound of a cringeworthy buzzer effect each time a throat is cut – but this highly-priced opera-house staging – albeit with top-notch performers – could do with a bit more blood and guts and gore that a fuller staging would have provided.