This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
“Be careful of what you say, children may listen” warns Stephen Sondheim in a show which delves into the grim side of fairy tales and asks us to consider what we are telling our kids and how well we are equipping them to cope with the adult world. Mixing various stories together in the first half and muddying the path to their resolutions, the show then proceeds to tell us that none of the characters live happily ever after, in an often disturbing second half, which issues stark warnings as to how harsh life (and death) can really be. Dating from 1987 when Sondheim was at his peak, Into the Woods will soon gain wider recognition with the release of the long-awaited film version. In advance of that event, this small theatre near to the edge of Waltham Forest, invites us to join an array of well-known characters – Cinderella, searching for her prince; Little Red Riding Hood, visiting her grannie; Jack, climbing his beanstalk; Rapunzel, escaping confinement; and the Baker with his wife, trying to resolve their infertility problem – and share their experiences in woody terrain. The show’s intricate lyrics carry the unmistakable mark of Sondheim and the score must rank amongst his finest, with songs that are comic, romantic, hopeful and despairing linking perfectly together. Cinderella’s Prince (Josh Pugh) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Tim Phelps) both seen here as arrogant toffs, share the wonderful Agony, venting their frustration at their failure to seek out their respective loves; and Helena Raeburn, as the Witch, pleads to her disaffected daughter with a heartfelt rendition of Stay With Me. For all its many treasures, this is not a show without problems. James Lapine’s book always risks falling between two stools, being too dark and, narratively, too complex for small children and too childish for grown-ups. It needs a constant flow of inventive comedy to carry it through the first half and sincere, convincing performance to carry it through the second. Tim McArthur’s well-judged production does well on both counts. With a few exceptions, this is a very young company and, in one instance, a son looks much older than his father. Of course, youth means energy, which is here in abundance. However, Raeburn, heavily disguised as a hunchbacked bag lady and then turning into an embittered, possessive mother upon losing her powers, does not yet have the maturity to be the perfect Witch. Amongst the more seasoned performers, Paul Hutton and Jo Wickham, as the Baker and his wife, are outstanding. Hutton makes a stirring pacifist plea to end the arboreal mayhem, singing No More, and then duets with Annie Kirkham (as Cinderella) for the lovely, soothing lullaby No One Is Alone. Wickham flirts with Cinderella’s Prince as they sing the mischievous Any Moment before dissolving two more of the first half’s happy endings. These examples typify a production which is beautifully sung throughout, accompanied by a five piece band under the direction of Aaron Clingham. Gregor Donnelly’s set, a leafy glade with a stage covered in wood shavings, provides intimacy with the audience as well as plentiful space for the large cast to move around and make their many rapid entrances and exits. Into the Woods is a far from easy show to stage well, so congratulations to all involved with this production. They have just about nailed it.
Performance date: 10 October 2014