Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
All Star Productions and Trilby Productions with The Cockpit
Director Tim McArthur had a clear concept when creating this version of Sondheim and Lapine’s satirical interweaving of familiar fairy tales: he wanted make it reflect contemporary British culture and saw its characters in terms of the types that appear in television reality shows and in real life.
His Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson) could be from Made in Chelsea and perhaps the Princes too (Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke), her Ugly Sisters (Macey Cherrett and Francesca Pim) and stepmother (Mary Lincoln) from TOWIE. Beanstalk Jack’s beer-can-in-hand, fag-in-mouth mother (Madeleine MacMahon) behaves like someone on the Jeremy Kyle programme while the Witch looks like a bag lady and the Baker and his Wife (Tim McArthur and Jo Wickham) could work in Greggs.
Not every character can be matched up that way, but it adds a kind of street cred that is invigorating in a production that is bold and seems constantly moving.
The Baker and his Wife want a child and the hub of the plot is their search for the objects the Witch demands they bring her to lift a curse that prevents them from having one. These are a cloak red as blood, a cow white as milk, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Little Red Ridinghood (Florence Odumosu) has the cloak, Rapunzel (Louise Olley) the hair, Jack (Jamie O’Donnell) the cow that he is taking to market and Cinderella of course has gold slippers.
Add a giant and his wife, a Wolf and a Granny, a mysterious man and Cinderella’s Mother’s spirit and all is set to tell all these stories with the help of Jordan Michael Todd’s narrator who kicks things off to a good start establishing a warm rapport with the audience.
The first act sees most people getting what they have been wishing for and multiple happy endings but after the interval it is “Once upon a time …. Later” and things start to go wrong.
Joana Dias provides a set built from wooden pallets and ladders and offers central changes of level surrounded by a playing space covered in dry leaves that is atmospherically lit by Vittorio Verta that serves this in-the-round production well in keeping it moving, though with all those leaves it is perhaps fortunate that there are no dance numbers.
There are some strong performances, especially from the narrator, the Baker and his Wife, a Red Riding Hood who is too busy listening on her headset to notice things and Jack, a particularly sweet-voiced Rapunzel and a couple of clownishly synchronised Princes who deliver their great duet “Agony” effectively. (I’ve always thought this show’s best song.)
However, not all the singing is perfect and voices sometimes have a problem competing with the band. Despite (or perhaps because) the actors have radio microphones, there isn’t the clarity of diction that Sondheim’s lyrics demand and sometimes volume and projection seem non-existent, especially when characters are singing from the aisles in the corners of the playing space or facing away from where you are sitting and, just when you might have expected full volume for the voice of the giant coming from above, by contrast a very small voice. Perhaps that last was meant to make a point of being way up high but it wasn't enough to even hold the attention.
An early version of this production was staged in 2014 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre where All Star Productions has gained an enviable reputation for its musicals and it had a well received sold-out run with this one. I didn’t see it there but I don’t think they use microphones there and wish they hadn’t in the Cockpit.
With natural voice projection, actors can judge their own levels better and we might have been able to hear the lyrics and follow the story more easily.
A different seat might perhaps have provided a different acoustic but what I heard was only half Sondheim and made a production that had many good points confusing and disappointing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton