4/5 Stars

★★★★ A Great Reason To Go Back Into The Woods

Simon Ward reviews Into The Woods at The Cockpit Theatre

‘Into The Woods’ is a much-loved show, having run on Broadway twice, and three times in the West End, since its inception over 30 years ago. I was fortunate to see it in The Phoenix in 1991 with a never-to-be-forgotten coup de theatre involving Nicholas Parsons as the Narrator. I have loved the show ever since. In my opinion it was ill-served by the Disney movie of 2014, which blurred the hard edges of a piece which is all about recognising and dealing with hard edges and difficult realities. So there is a degree of trepidation with any new production – can they pull off the multiple plot strands, the Sondheim-trademark complex lyrics, the staging demands of woods, wolves, beanstalks and giants, without turning the whole thing into panto? The answer here is a resounding yes.

From the glamorous programme, to the large cast, excellent band and elaborate staging in the round, this is distinctly Off West End rather than Fringe. Time and money has been spent and it shows. This is definitely not a cut-down studio version – the band, led by Aaron Clingham, is small but very capable and all numbers are present and correct. Joanna Dias’s set design based on ladders and pallets is witty and versatile – we are literally surrounded by wood. The staging brings a great intimacy – the performers move among the audience, and we feel part of the action. This more than makes up for the inconvenience of having to occasionally peer past a ladder to see the action. On press night there were a few rogue noises from the sound system, but this should be resolved as the production progresses, and generally the voice mikes worked brilliantly and the witty lyrics rang out.

This was the second collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, after Sunday In The Park With George, and both shows share a similar structure. In the first act, all plot strands are tied up and one wonders what is left to say in the second. But then we realise that we are going to see the aftermath of ‘Happy Ever After’ because, after all, is life really that simple?

In Into The Woods a miscellaneous bunch of fairytale staples, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood and, of course, a witch are assembled. In this production the characters have been given specific back-stories – for example, Jack and his mother (Jamie O’Donnell and Madeleine MacMahon in stand-out performances) are Glaswegian, the mother never without the end of a tab in her fingers and a can of Special Brew in the other hand. This is sustained throughout and adds an extra dimension of humour. The disparate stories are woven together by the attempts of the baker and his wife to lift the witch’s curse and have a child. The tales are loosely based on the Grimm versions of the fairytales and do not flinch from the more gruesome aspects. In particular, the carving of the stepsisters’ feet in trying to fit in the slipper is graphically done.

As the second act brings home the consequences of the decisions so blithely made in the first, and the chastened survivors realise they just have to keep going, the melancholy hope offered by No One is Alone seems entirely appropriate. This a rich and complex show, which finds so many themes and such depth in the apparently simple stories of our childhood. It is well served by this production.

Tim McArthur, who directs as well as playing the Baker, has marshalled a large cast brilliantly in the space with intricate choreography to match the tongue-twisting lyrics. If you know and love this show, go – this is a great version. If you have never seen it, go – you are in for a treat!

Simon Ward

Into The Woods runs at The Cockpit Theatre until Sunday 24th June

Production images courtesy of David Ovenden.

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