Into the Woods is Sondheim’s masterpiece. A musical score full of invention yet accessible, lyrics that are at once moving and hilarious, and both perfectly accompanying James Lapine’s wonderful book. Interweaving fairy stories, questioning what these tales are really about and then, after the interval, returning to the characters to find out what happens after the happily ever after; it’s one of the cleverest things you’ll ever see and one of the most rewarding.
Director Timothy Sheader gives the show a production it deserves. His new spin is to cast the narrator as a child. This adds little, but where Sheader excels is to bring out the musical’s qualities. This is particularly well executed in the way he brings out the dark side of the fairy stories we tell children – the woods are a sinister place and we fear for the babies in them.
With Soutra Gilmour’s wonderful set and some startling choreography from Liam Steel, the dynamism of the piece is given full scope. The mix of stories is hectic and a controlled chaos appropriately challenges suspension of disbelief.
The characters’ knowledge of the artificial world they are a part of, along with the lessons they learn and impart, is relished by the cast. There are some wonderful performances here. Beverly Rudd is great as the greedy Red Ridinghood, managing a tune while she stuffs buns in her mouth. Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas play the Princes with a nod to Russell Brand and get the most out of their duets.
There are three great leading ladies. Hannah Waddingham is on excellent form as the witch and Jenna Russell is as superb as ever as the Baker’s wife. Helen Dallimore’s sweet voice serves well in the role of Cinderella, whose proclamation, “I wish”, starts the whole glorious evening.
It seems obvious to stage Into the Woods at Regents Park. There must have been a collective, “ah, yes”, when it was announced, yet it is to Sheaders’s credit that it is done so well. It is great to hear the wind in the leaves accompany Sondheim’s score and see the characters retreating into the trees at the end of the evening. The only problem with this production is the short run. Given the number of wonderful touches, and surprise voice over, it would be great to see it transfer or return to the park next year. That’s my wish anyway.
Until 11 September 2010
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Written 17 August 2010 for The London Magazine