REVIEW: INTO THE WOODS (Cockpit Theatre) ★★★
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods is one of the juggernauts of musical theatre. Premiering on Broadway in 1987, it won several Tony Awards including Best Actress in a Musical, Best Score, Best Book and led to Bernadette Peters becoming a household name and musical theatre royalty. Since then the musical has been produced numerous times including the 1990 West End production with Julie McKenzie as the Witch and Imelda Staunton as the Baker’s Wife, a 2002 Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams as the Witch and a pre-recorded Judi Dench as the voice of the Giant, a well-received production at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2010, a Disney film adaption starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp and a brilliant stripped back production with ten actor musicians from the Fiasco Theatre Company in New York which transferred to the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2016 just after the Pulse nightclub shooting making the musical’s themes ever more relevant.
This year, a new production is being staged at The Cockpit which promises to bring Into The Woods into the 21st Century. From the Jeremy Kyle Show to the Royal Wedding, this contemporary revival features a drug using Rapunzel, a paedophile Wolf and a Cinderella’s Stepmother who seems like she’s stepped straight out of TOWIE!
Into The Woods brilliantly intertwines several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of each characters wishes and adventures with main characters taken from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella. These characters stories are tied together by a childless Baker, his wife and the Witch from next door as they quest to gain ingredients for a spell so they can begin a family. As the characters interact, the musical takes a darker turn following the appearance of a Giant in the land and flips their fairy tales upside-down with the characters coming to understand they should be careful what they wish for as it just might come true.
In this production Michele Moran plays the Witch, with Tim McArthur and Jo Wickham as Baker and Baker’s Wife, Jamie O’Donnell as Jack, Florence Odumosu as Little Red Ridinghood, Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, Mary Lincoln as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Madeleine MacMahon as Jack’s Mother, Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke as the Wolf/Princes, Louise Olley as Rupunzel, Jonathan Wadey as Mysterious Man and Jordan Michael Todd as the Narrator. Each actor performed well and was entirely capable of handling Sondheim’s complicated score and a stand out performance was given by Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella. Carter-Simpson was able to elevate her performance and gave a polished, alive and original take on Cinderella while still respecting the piece.
This production of Into The Woods gave the audience a lot to think about. It presented the show’s characters as caricatures of modern day England, from royalty to TOWIE. I found the concept overtook the piece and as a result I didn’t like and lost interest in many of the characters. I also found some directorial choices confusing. Having the Wolf as a paedophile was a bold choice however this didn’t translate. Both actors were the same age and Red Riding Hood wasn’t really dressed. After Cinderella’s Stepmother and step-sisters have been to the ball, the step-sisters make a comment about their failed night, talking about themselves “Never wear mauve to a ball or pink..” and then Cinderella’s step-mother chimes in speaking about them “… or open your mouth!” They wore yellow and pink, missing this joke entirely. Throughout the production the narrator used puppet birds whenever Cinderella spoke to them, without bird sound effects. After he was given to the giant Cinderella employs her birds help once more to kill the Giant. No bird puppet was used, no sound effects took their place and instead Cinderella looked up offstage into the dark. This resulted in Red Riding Hoods line “You can talk to birds?!” (one of the funniest in the show) being totally missed as it wasn’t clear what was happening. During the show the Witch loses her powers when she’s transformed at the end of the First Act back to her natural state of youth and beauty. In this production, halfway through Last Midnight during the Second Act she apparently gets them back as she uses her powers to hold the other characters captive as she sings. While a fun effect, it just doesn’t make sense to the plot.
All Star Productions Into The Woods seemed to try very hard at being contemporary, rather than relying on the material to tell the story and allow the audience to relate it their own modern day lives. Being based around fairy tales Into The Woods naturally has a timeless quality and I wonder if this modern treatment was entirely necessary as this production seemed to have lost it’s charm and magic.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: David Ovenden