Into the Woods
Ned Hopkins | 27 May 2018 09:48am
Photo: David Ovenden
First successfully presented on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods failed to capture the imagination of its British audience when it arrived here three years later, but time has proved it to be one of Sondheim’s most popular musicals; one that lends itself to being successfully re-imagined by each new company that tackles it. All Sondheim’s musicals are stamped with genius, but this one has a particularly satisfying score comprising lush, often melancholy ballads punctuated by his signature staccato riffs. Above all, his poignant, witty lyrics make us think about who we are and what we’re doing here – and our effect on other people.
For many of us, our moral compass will have been influenced by the fairy tales we were told as children. But if the lessons passed on by the stories of Grimm and Perrault concerning Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood have been sanitised by Disney and trivialised by the British pantomime tradition, Sondheim and his book writer James Lapine explore the darkness of the originals. They have also added to the cast an infertile Baker, his wife, and a witch with attitude – and a mission to make them help her reverse a spell. Act One jumbles up the familiar stories but by the interval has drawn them together with conventional happy-ever-after endings. Act Two reminds us that life is transient and for some will be brutal, as one by one several of our favourite characters succumb to the machinations of a revengeful giant.
The last version of the show to be seen in London, two years ago, was an off-Broadway minimalist version with one piano and ten actors doubling up, not only roles, but playing musical instruments. Director Tim McArthur’s conceit, in this revival of his 2014 production, is to visualise the characters as from British reality TV. Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf hail from Oop North whilst Jack’s mother (Madeleine McMahon) is a mouthy Glaswegian as, of course is Jack himself (an engaging performance from Jamie O’Donnell). On the other hand, the two bored and amoral princes (Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke) are obviously familiar with the wine bars of Chelsea.
The show makes good use of the venue’s configuration, placing the audience as bystanders on the edge of the eponymous woods, carpeted with bark chips – surely a headache to dance on! A central structure comprises cut-down crates and three ladders allowing, when required, different sets of characters to cohabit the space simultaneously (another clever set design from Joana Dias). Effective use is also made by the director of the corners too, for Grandmother’s bedroom and the ‘invisible’ giant. If, despite the use of body mikes, we occasionally lose some of the words when the cast gamble around the acting area, especially the ‘morals’ delivered by each member at strategic points – I especially liked Opportunity is Not a Lengthy Visitor – the audience gains from a sense of being involved.
As we have come to expect from the All Star producers, the show is strong on ensemble playing and pays great attention to every note of the music. Aaron Clingham has nicely distilled the essence of Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations for five instrumentalists, effectively doing the work of at least twelve. Vittorio Verta’s atmospheric lighting design – the moments when the tallest ladder lights up is particularly magical – pulls together McArthur’s physical staging and choreography. The cast are also imaginatively dressed by Stewart Charlesworth. And despite being staged in-the-round, the director has achieved some delightful pictures and groupings, using white open umbrellas to good effect in Giants in the Sky, whilst the grouping and lighting of The Last Midnight is stunning.
There is some impressive vocal work in the production, especially from Michele Moran, who juggles the several strands of the book as the Witch, morphing in front of our eyes from a malevolent Mother Courage figure in the first Act into a glamorous diva for the second. Jo Wickham and Tim McArthur make a robust and believable couple as the Baker and his Wife and their duet It Takes Two is blissful. Abigail Carter-Simpson is a charming – and sincere – Cinderella. Florence Odumosu portrays Little Red Riding Hood as a young woman only a wolf would dare mess with yet shows LRR’s vulnerable side, and is especially touching in her number I Know Things Now. Louise Olley gains our total sympathy as the appallingly treated Rapunzel – surely one of the saddest heroines in traditional fiction; it was a nice touch to let her descend into a junkie.
Friday night the performance lacked some attack at the beginning. I also missed a sense of foreboding and danger, especially in the scenes involving the Wolf, who was entertaining but, I felt, needs to be more menacing. Nevertheless, the pace and atmosphere soon built and drew the audience in, casting the spell this show always does, before sending us away reminding ourselves that we’re human, not perfect, must take responsibility for our own behaviour and learn about the pitfalls of life for ourselves. Everyone one else has been there before us. No-one is Alone.
A melodic, moving and thought-provoking evening.
Photo: David Ovenden