Into the Woods

The Other Emily spends an entertaining evening at the theatre with this classic Sondheim musical.

As you were all heading out into your bank holiday weekends, I ventured Into the Woods to a dark world of grimly comic Fairy tales.

Who else could turn childhood favourites into (even) darker versions of the stories other than Stephen Sondheim? Woven into a modern mash up of wolves, beanstalks, bakers, and princesses, this production is a reprisal of the sell-out show in 2014, and sits easily in the round at the Cockpit Theatre. The forest floor is a generous carpet of wood-chipping, and the eerie woods of Sondheim’s imagination a set of ladders ascending into the sky, and dangling down from the beams of the theatre. I took my place with a bird’s eye view (and out of the way of any possible audience participation) and waited for the Narrator (Jordan Michael Todd) to begin the tale.

Director Tim McArthur promises the audience a 21st Century twist with his adaptation, and we certainly get that. Jack and his Maw are Glaswegian Neds; the Baker and his wife are Health & Safety conscious with their hair nets and crocs; Cinderella’s Step Mother and her sisters are straight out of TOWIE; and an Irish Witch & Rapunzel battle over a Mother’s right to control her daughter’s life. Our protagonists are a parade of modern stereotypes, which proves a little gimmicky at times; the paedophilic wolf, portrayed as a wide boy; Jack’s drunk Mother lurching around with thong on display, an overwrought, coked-up Rapunzel rejected by her Chelsea Prince Charming etc.

In our world of ‘more’, the characters all wish for something else to fill the void. In a nutshell, the Baker wants a child, but the Baker has been cursed by his friendly next-door neighbour, the Witch. She sends him off into the woods to fetch four magic ingredients to break the curse; a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold – see where they all fit in now? Cue the music.

And in this production, we are treated, on the whole, to some fine performances. Aaron Clingham, the musical director, steers the discordant score through the woods with a few tonal mishaps from his singers. I was rather taken by the awkward Jack, played by Jamie O’Donnell, clambering to the top of the ladder-cum-beanstalk, plaintively singing ‘Giants in the Sky’. The stand out performance comes from the Witch, Michele Moran, who ably settles into the role of the haggard old crone whose love for Rapunzel is borderline claustrophobic. She steers much of the narrative, finally breaking the curse of the poor old Baker, to the delight of all.

End of Act One, and it all looks smooth sailing – the Baker’s curse has been lifted! Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny are safely back side by side! Jack has his favourite cow and Cinders and Rapunzel their handsome princes. But wait – there’s still Act Two to go, and from the opening number ‘So Happy’ we know it’s not going to be a bunch of laughs. Sondheim’s trademark satirical voice reminds us that we just can’t stay content for long, there’s always something else we want.

It’s a clunkier second act – which is partly down to the Book, and by the end of the rampage (oh, did I neglect to mention Jack’s Giantess comes down and tramples most of the ensemble?) I feel like I’ve had a fairly large dose of Medieval Morality – face your responsibilities, own up to your choices, don’t become an overbearing parent. The cast unravel a tad, spending much of the act staring up at the imaginary Giant, and the choreography of the Finale is slightly gauche. The intimate set, which worked so atmospherically in the first act, loses its magic, and when the haze from the woods rises, it left me with the harsh reality of black box theatre…

I think it will take a few more magic beans for me to become a hard and fast Sondheim fan, though there will be many in the audience. As for the production at the Cockpit, the actors still have to find their footing on the wood-chipped floor and sort out a few rookie mic issues, but, with that aside, it is an entertaining watch.

INTO THE WOODS runs at the Cockpit Theatre until the 24th June.

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