Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
After last year's wonderful Christmas production of Little Shop of Horrors, the Royal Exchange has again gone for a full-scale musical for its festive offering, this time with Sondheim and Lapine's fairy-tale-based masterpiece Into the Woods.
This show, like the other Sondheim-Lapine collaboration Sunday in the Park with George, is in two distinct halves. Act one is a fusion of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, all brought together by the quest by a baker and his wife to have a spell removed from their family that prevents them from having children.
But what it's really about is relationships between parents and children and how they change as the children grow. Most moving, actually, is the witch who locks her stepdaughter in a tower to protect her from the world as she reaches adolescence. Don't most parents, deep down, wish they could do this?
Act 1 ends with the "happy ever after", so act 2 is what happens next. The princes are bored with domestic life now the thrill of the chase is over. Jack misses his trips up the beanstalk. The witch is no longer ugly—she is ordinary. Then the giant's wife comes seeking revenge for the murder of her husband.
But what it's really about is breaking out of the fairy tale and taking responsibility for the real world, climaxing in the ultimate piece of meta-narrative as the characters sacrifice the narrator to the giant and have to devise their own endings.
Matthew Xia's production begins with a crying child being comforted by the narrator by telling him the story of the show, which serves no purpose at all but is easily ignored. Costumes are largely modern-dress street clothes, which robs us of the glamour of the fairy tale world and again serves no purpose. Perhaps Xia thinks we won't get the resonances in the real world if the characters aren't dressed like us.
A lot of the time, the performances seem a little restrained as well, even for a theatre as intimate as the Royal Exchange, and there are curiously static moments as the actors appear to be waiting for the music instead of acting through it.
But there are some great or potentially great performances that shine through. The first moment that really grabbed me was when the princes, despite being reduced to country gentlemen in their dress, give a brilliantly funny rendition of "Agony"—Marc Elliott as Rapunzel's Prince and Michael Peavoy brilliant as Cinderella's Prince but his half-naked Mancunian Wolf doesn't work at all.
Gillian Bevan sounds very much like Julia Mackenzie's Witch on the original West End recording, giving a very effective performance, but I suspect she will find more depth and grandeur in her performance during the run.
David Moorst is great as Gormless Jack with Claire Brown as his put-upon mother, Natasha Cottriall gets across well the spoiled brat Little Red Ridinghood, Francesca Zoutewelle is a perfect Cinderella and Cameron Blakely has a wonderful narrator's voice. It is all held together by solid performances from Alex Gaumond and Amy Ellen Richardson as the Baker and his wife.
Despite the largely drab costumes, Jenny Tiramani's set design is effective with its extending tree trunks and canopy of fir branches. Musical director Sean Green gets a very impressive sound out of the small group of musicians on the balcony in Julian Kelly's arrangements.
By the end, the music, brilliantly thoughtful and philosophical lyrics and some very good performances had grabbed me enough for this to be a production well worth seeing, despite its flaws.
Reviewer: David Chadderton