Show: Into the Woods
Society: Bromley Little Theatre
Venue: Bromley Little Theatre, North Street, Bromley, Kent BR1 1SBmain theatre and bar
Credits: by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine. Originally directed on Broadway by James Lapine. Orchestration by Jonathan Tunik
Performance Date: 12/12/2016
Into the Woods
Paul Johnson | 18 Dec 2016 17:47pm
Photo: Phil Cairns
Sondheim is a notoriously difficult ‘sing’ for professionals let alone amateurs so, being a lover of the musical genius, it was with some trepidation that I went to see Bromley Little Theatre’s Into The Woods this month. To mount a production on a small stage featuring twenty-four characters presents many problems, but director Pauline Armour, never one to run from a challenge, has produced a gorgeously innovative and quirky show filled with imagination aided by a strong creative team and extremely talented cast.
Into the Woods is an adult telling and interweaving of several well-known fairytales. In order to reverse a witch’s curse which has left them childless, a baker and his wife are instructed by the old crone to bring her Jack’s (and the Beanstalk) cow, Red Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, and a slipper as pure as gold… all in three days! A light-hearted first act tells the stories as we all know them, and Armour and cast have done particularly well in finding much tongue-in-cheek humour in doing so. There are many clever inventions in play from BLT, particularly the way the Wolf (hilariously played and sexed up by Howie Ripley) eats Red Riding Hood (a delightfully spoiled brat courtesy of Jessica-Ann Jenner) before she and grandmother escape; Jack’s beanstalk represented by green umbrellas positioned on top of each other; and having both leather-clad, panto-esque princes getting around on the most minimalist of motorbikes (basically long hobby horse-style metal rods with handlebars and a small headlight – most phallic-like). A horizontal thin white line of face make-up was a also a nicely done homage to Adam Ant’s Prince Charming from the 80s.
By the interval our baker and wife have successfully harvested the witch’s requirements and the curse is lifted – resulting in a baby for the happy couple. And that’s where the show might have ended with everyone living happy ever after, but Mr Sondheim of course has other ideas. Act Two sets out to prove that ‘happy ever after’ is almost never the case. A giant (Jan Greenhough in splendid voice) has followed Jack down the beanstalk seeking revenge on her husband’s killer. Cue much squishing of nearly all of our fairytale heroes and heroines including the baker’s wife.
One of BLT’s biggest challenges – how to perform Sondheim’s full score on an already-full stage – has been brilliantly overcome by Armour and MD Kate Drakard deciding to use a computerised fully orchestrated backing. Manually and expertly operated by Dave Jones, the resulting sound is superb and has the added benefit of allowing the cast to perform without the need for head-mics. Tony Jenner’s clever multi-level set design (including a downstage rake) provides as much space as possible for the company as well as avoiding scene-change delays.
Into the Woods is naturally an ensemble piece with one or two actors featuring just slightly more prominently. As Narrator young Josh Williams Ward (who played Oliver Twist on the same stage exactly five years previously) floats in and out with confidence. Chris DePrury and Kate Drakard as the baker and his wife arguably take a little time to find their way but improve strongly with each scene. Drakard’s second act scenes with Prince Charming are particular highlights. The aforementioned Jessica-Ann Jenner excels as Red Riding Hood both in singing and characterisation as she brings a nice degree of childish petulance and, at the same time, innocence to the role.
Another stand-out performance in this show is Bethan Boxall as Cinderella, with a beautiful, clear singing voice added to which her diction and verbal dexterity (vital in a Sondheim musical) are first-class. To cap it all she convincingly acts through her lyrics so every nuance is caught by the audience. Her rendition of No One Is Alone brought tears to my eyes; it was so beautiful and heartfelt. Mesmerizing!
Howie Ripley threatens to steal the show and wins top honours for engulfing himself in the true spirit of Armour’s vision. His ‘Eastern European’ sex-crazed Wolf followed by a joyful second role as a slightly nice-but-dim Prince Charming, where he even manages to channel a degree of Rick Mayall’s Lord Flasheart into his performance, was glorious. Partnered with Ripley, although not quite as flamboyant, Max Pritchett as Rapunzel’s Prince, boasts a lovely singing voice which brings strong chemistry between the two regal roles.
Elsewhere, Sophie Gissing’s Rapunzel demonstrates a nice contrast between the innocence and captive from Act One under her mother’s (the Witch, Claire Kingshott) influence and the rebellion of Act Two. And I thoroughly enjoyed Stevie Hughes’ deadpan (and, at times, dead) Milky White The Cow; he certainly gets the audience’s sympathy and laughter in equal measure.
Into the Woods certainly is an ambitious project to take on but BLT’s production is thoroughly enjoyable. Its off-the-wall style, where half the cast wear motorcycle goggles, caught me in a parallel universe somewhere between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and something the National Theatre might have staged in the late 60s or early 70s. When you’re attempting to pull off something with a definitive style your cast really has to understand what and why they’re there. I’m pleased to say that this cast all get it and, for that, deserve great praise. An entertaining and fitting end to the year in this suburban corner of SE London.
Photo: Phil Cairns
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- : 12/12/2016