views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Into the Woods
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
10th October 2014

★★★★★

Macey Cherrett, Lydia Jenkins, Annie Kirkman and Christina Thornton as Florinda, Lucinda, Cinderella and their mum

Photography © David Ovenden

All Star Productions have a long track record of choosing fairly obscure musicals to stage, but even if you're unfamiliar with Sondheim's Into the Woods, the book draws on a number of well-known children's stories and myths, making it instantly relatable. All of our fairytale heroes have a deep longing for something - the show is bookended by the words "I wish" - and to get what they want, they all have to (as the title suggests) go into the woods.

Director Tim McArthur transposes the characters from the realms of Grimm and Perrault into modern Britain; peasant characters Jack (Hugh O'Donnell) and his mum (Sarah Waddell) are now thickly Scottish, chavvy and well, thick. Jack's best mate Milky White is a crude approximation of a cow fashioned out of a simple wooden stool, making his desire for her to bear milk both ridiculous and upsetting at the same time. He's a simple boy with simple wishes, and yet none of those are that likely to come true, heartbreakingly emphasised in his rendition of Giants In The Sky - O'Donnell's vibrato is especially delicious. As for Little Red (Emma Ralston), she has obviously painted-on freckles and chunky black frames (together with the obligatory red coat) and a disposition which seems as if she might "scream and scream and scream" at any moment.

Red may have a touch of Violet Elizabeth Bott to her, but the two princes of the tale, Prince Charming (Josh Pugh) and his brother (Tim Phelps), are both Made-in-Chelsea-esque poshos, and thus with a more modern bent. It's all tweed this, and yah that. The casting is spot on, as usual - with Cinderella (Annie Kirkman) bearing more than a passing resemblance to Princess Kate's rear-of-the-year sister. Ugly stepsisters Florinda (Macey Cherrett) and Lucinda (Lydia Jenkins) offer a distinctly TOWIE vibe with their blingy dresses, gravity-defying heels and matching pouts. Even the Mysterious Man (Stuart Murray) has a hint of CBeebies icon Mr Tumble about him. McArthur clearly understands the farcical elements of the book and plays with these brilliantly, helped by the slightly mad, Northern, Worzel Gummidge quality of the Narrator (Rob Oliver).

The set is even more detailed than that for previous show The Apple Tree, with ivy creeping along the walls and the floor covered in woodchip. The venue smells and looks like an enchanted forest, and you can't help but be charmed by the detail from designer Gregor Donnelly. Even the small details are irresistible - the umbrella clouds during Giants In The Sky may have been "borrowed" from the recent Regent's Park production, but it somehow doesn't matter.

Emma Ralston as Little Red Riding Hood

Photography © David Ovenden

The central story in Into The Woods is the (invented) tale of the childless Baker (Paul Hutton) and his Wife (Jo Wickham), played here with real heart by both and garbed appropriately in hairnets and kitchen whites. Wickham is particularly strong in both comic timing and singing, and the two play strongly off one another. Like Kirkham, Wickham is a returner from tearjerker Days of Hope and it's a pleasure to see her back at Ye Olde Rose and Crown, particularly in such a different role.

Act II is all about consequences and here in particular there are some lovely, deliciously dark touches, such as the steward (Joshua Coley) casually bumping off someone then measuring out hand-sanitising gel, and Rapunzel (Emma Devlin) developing a coke habit. Sondheim and Lapine aren't shy about killing off their protagonists, and McArthur does nothing to make this seem any less harsh. This musical is a real treat for any of the adults who have read bedtime story after bedtime story and grown sick of the saccharine qualities these involve.

Throughout the three hours or so, the vocals are strong, if some of the words are lost in the larger ensemble numbers such as Opening and Finale; this is partly due to the overlapping lyrics, a favoured Sondheim staple. However, it's the Witch (Helen Raeburn) whose songs are the most emotional, gaining our sympathy through the heartfelt anguish packed into Stay With Me and Witch's Lament. She may have spirited away the Baker's sister, but she genuinely cares about Rapunzel as if the girl were her own daughter. Despite the tradition of all not being what it seems in fairyland, it's surprising that the Witch is who moves us the most - but this is down to Raeburn's stunning vocals.

It feels like there's little point commenting on Aaron Clingham's musical direction, because predictably, the orchestrations are beautiful and utterly faultless. But in the interest of completeness, that's what they are; Act II tear-jerker No One Is Alone is particularly heart-rending, thanks to both actors and musicians.

This is yet another magical production from Clingham and co where they all live happily ever after. Faultless music, a carefully crafted storyline and devilish humour apparent in the direction, ramping up the fun factor even further.

Into the Woods ran from 7th to 31st October 2014 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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