Sunday 26th October 2014, matinée
We can see why All Star Productions were tempted by Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre – it’s a piece that is challenging both musically, dramatically, and practically, and anyone who has been to this remarkable pub theatre will know they don’t have a lot of space to play with. With this company’s track record, we didn’t hesitate to book for their latest show, eager to add to our collection of Sondheim classics.
We won’t spend too much time on the plot of James Lapine’s book, although if you are interested wikipedia boasts a plot summary which runs over 1500 words, and that’s just for act one. Suffice to say, this is a mash-up of fairytale characters such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel, all of whom end up in the woods on various missions, and who start to interact in ever more complex and witty ways. The theme purports to be ‘be careful what you wish for’, as the ‘happy ever after’ of the typical fairytale is deconstructed mercilessly, and the characters revealed not just as shallow and two-dimensional, but selfish and unfeeling too. Give people what they say they want, the message seems to be, and they will only find a way to mess it up. Modern psychology has found plenty of evidence to back up this view, but as a musical drama, the success of this approach is variable. Everything feels just a little bit over-complicated, and Lapine and Sondheim seem to have sacrificed emotional content on the altar of cleverness. For once, we fear, Forbidden Broadway was not exaggerating. After an action-packed first half full of comedy with moments of sharp satire, the second half seems to get tied up in its own loose ends, and there is a bit too much sermonising.
Despite our doubts about the format, we feel that this production brings out the strengths of the piece with a strong cast, tight and pacy direction and a set which perfectly suits the action and mood of the story. The updating works well and fits the characters without being obtrusive. Hence we have Sloane rangers for Princes, with their Chelsea drawl and unfeasibly elaborate greeting rituals; Jack’s mum might be straight off ‘Benefits Street’, her acquisition of riches signalled mainly by an upgrade of her visible thong and jogging pants combination and the addition of some serious bling (Jack gets new underpants too). Cinderella’s step-sisters, meanwhile, would slot quite happily into ‘The only way is Essex’, although probably preferring to think of themselves as Kardashians.
As Jack, Hugh O’Donnell has strong vocals, and a great line in well-meaning but hopeless stupidity, redeemed only by his great affection for the milky white cow he is forced to sell. Sarah Waddell as Jack’s Mum is hilariously shameless in her exasperation with her useless offspring, and her final stand in the woods where she tells the giantess where to go is a tour de force of rage and sheer bloody-mindedness. Emma Ralston is delightfully dark as the ‘too good to be true’ Little Red Ridinghood whose encounter with the wolf has some uncomfortable overtones, as illustrated in the song ‘I know things now’ which she imbues with youthful intensity and knowing humour. Josh Pugh is by equal turns hilarious and disturbing as the wolf whose love of flesh appears to be more than just gastronomic, and he scrubs up nicely as Cinderella’s vacuous prince, teaming up with fellow Prince Tim Phelps for one of the stand-out songs of the show, ‘Agony’. Paul Hutton as the Baker is the perfect underdog, and brings a nice sense of bemused willingness as he pursues his bizarre quest in the forest, wanting to do it on his own but reluctantly having to concede that ‘It takes two’ when his wife insists on helping. As the Baker’s wife Jo Wickham is the power behind her husband, doggedly ambitious, and she has a powerful and calming stage presence which helps to hold the action together – after all it is her desire for a child which sets everything into motion.
Overall this was a high quality and energetic production, full of enjoyable moments. We had the ‘luxury’ of a five-piece band under Aaron Clingham’s direction playing a variety of instruments and bringing out the nuance and subtlety of the music, a simple yet atmospheric set designed by Gregor Donnelly, and Tim McArthur’s direction pulled all the elements together skilfully. If the afternoon ultimately dragged, it was because of a lack of pay-off – too much complexity and not enough depth. And one other cautionary note for a show which lasts nearly three hours – the chairs. We thought perhaps we had been singled out for special fairy-sized chairs until we saw that they were all the same – not only very small, but tightly packed, bringing their own form of ‘Agony’.