All Star Productions and Trilby Productions
Written by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Tim McArthur
23 May – 24 June 2018
For those who don’t know it, Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical is a crossover fairytale saga which is more Grimm than Disney, following an ensemble cast including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, and a baker and his wife who are determined to lift a witch’s curse and have a child. All these characters’ quests take them into the woods, where they cross paths and purposes, and by the end of the first act, all the storylines are resolved more or less as you’d expect. But the second act takes us beyond Happily Ever After and into somewhere darker…
This was the third or fourth production I’ve seen of Into the Woods, and right from the moment my eyes adjusted to the initial gloom of the stage space, I saw that this one would be different. Most productions use a normal proscenium arch stage, with classic panto-style fairytale backdrop, and old-timey Disney-esque costumes. Not so with this production. The Cockpit stage is theatre in the round, with the audience seated in ascending rows on four sides (the front row shares the floor with the characters, which feels very immersive but which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, as I was in constant fear of tripping the actors up, and got a bit of a strained neck from the awkward viewing angle also. I moved back a row at interval). The floor is covered in wood chip – I was constantly in awe of the Cinderella-story ladies’ abilities to walk and dance over such tricky terrain in towering heels – and the set pieces are constructed from rough wooden scaffolding (into the wood? hehe).
The costumes, however, are the biggest change, taking the fairytale characters and tropes and plonking them right into the 21st century. Apparently inspiration was taken from a number of British reality TV shows, but as an ignorant recent immigrant, I’ve never watched a minute of TOWIE or Made in Chelsea or any of the others; as such, a lot of the cultural references were lost on me. However, the basic archetypes were quite easy to recognise: the chavvy teenaged mum (Glaswegian accent as subtle as her hot pink thong), the husband-hunting Real Wives of Stepfamily, the bag lady witch, the ‘yahing’ public schoolboys, etc etc. I was quite surprised at how well a lot of these modernisations worked, and the extra layer of meaning they added to certain characterisations, especially Jack’s and his mother’s – but in other cases, such as drug-snorting Rapunzel, it felt at times gimmicky and inconsistent instead. In any case, the modernisation certainly didn’t take anything away from the performance, and sometimes added to it, so while it didn’t blow me away, overall it paid off.
In some ways, however, this production of Into the Woods was similar to others, most notably the way in which it begins to drag along in the second act. The actors seemed to feel this too, as after a shining first act, they seemed to suffer a marked slump in energy and chemistry for the second; this is perhaps to be expected for the first Saturday in a month-long run, but unfortunate nonetheless. Sound issues cropped now and then, and when the Giantess’ voice made its debut, un-miked, I thought at first that this was another technical problem – however, as it persisted throughout the act, I realised that this must have been a deliberate choice, perhaps trying for the illusion of distance and therefore height? Unfortunately, it only made her sound confusingly small. As for the other characters, their caricature-like acting which had been employed to great effect in the first act didn’t manage to harness the pathos and emotion of the second act, so that the string of tragedies and heartbreak felt somewhat by-the-numbers and flat.
Criticism aside, there was a lot to love about this production as well. Overall, the production qualities were extremely high, including the live band, the sound and visual effects, and the contrasting aesthetics of the heightened realism costuming, minimalistic symbolic props, and Joana Dias’ excellent set design. This last was beautiful in its rough simplicity, a standout moment being when the Witch climbed a ladder which lit up in fairy(tale) lights in time with her steps and the music. Speaking of Michele Moran’s Witch, she was excellent, both in her shuffling creepy form and glamorous haughty reincarnation. Her Irish accent tied in well with her Celtic-esque costume design (gotta love a good torc), and her swan song hit all the right notes including unhinged, vulnerable, desperate, reckless, and downright scary. The standout performance, however, was from Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Cinderella, with her soaring voice, beat-perfect comedic acting, and heights and depths of emotion.
The rest of the cast had a mix of strengths and weaknesses: Jack’s mother was at times a little one-note, but that note was wonderfully bolshy; the Princes hadn’t the strongest voices but didn’t need them to be hilarious; the Baker’s Wife tended to misjudge her comic timing but got us deeply invested in her through pure likability; Red and Jack were endearing but perhaps not entirely convincing children; Rapunzel and her gorgeous voice were somewhat short-changed by the unconvincing character arc (I loved her final moments sitting cross-legged on stage with a beautifully wistful smile); the Narrator suffered in the modernisation of the play, losing his point of difference, but was still very compelling with his wide-eyed wonder and earnest investment; supporting characters Steward, Stepmother, Stepsisters, Grandmother, and Old Man were all strong, and as a result felt somewhat underutilised. Director Tim McArthur was thoroughly eclipsed in his role as the Baker by the rest of his cast, however we have him to thank for the production’s vision and, I gather, its outstanding choreography.
Overall, this production of Into the Woods is fresh and fun, particularly in the crackling first act. The second failed to pack as much oomph, but I do suspect I just caught them on a bad night. If you are a fan of Sondheim, fairytales, or just musical theatre in general, I would encourage you to check this production out before its run ends.