REVIEW: Into The Woods

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Rebecca Walton as Cinderella

‘Prefect play for dark days’

Stratford Musical Theatre Company at the ArtsHouse until 27th May – tickets on sale at stratfordartshouse.co.uk or call 01789 207100

Going to see a musical the day after the atrocity in Manchester is not perhaps what you would feel like doing, or even think appropriate — should life skip along as normal after such a loss of innocent lives?

This production of Sondheim and Lapine’s dark and epic tale in the hands of the Stratford Musical Theatre Company (SMTC), however, offered not just a great spectacle but its themes and message drew profound analogies to the aftermath of that murderous suicide bombing.

The musical intertwines the plots of several ancient and well known fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. At the centre of it all is relatively ‘normal’ couple, the Baker and the Baker’s wife, who long for a child but have been cursed by the next-door neighbour witch to be barren. The old hag says she will sort them out with a baby if they find her a red cloak, a milky white cow, corn-yellow hair and a golden slipper. Cue their mission to venture into the mysterious woods to plead with and/or mug Little Red Riding Hood, Beanstalk Jack, Rapunzel and Cinderella.

Come the end of the first half a happy ending has been reached: a baby is born to the Bakers, the princesses find handsome princesses, Jack has riches, Red Riding Hood has a new wolf leather coat… But happiness proves to be temporary, the characters get disillusioned with their lot, there’s infidelity and bad parenting… and then an angry giantess comes into the woods seeking blood.

Even before the devastation of 22/05, SMTC had planned to give their Into the Woods an edgy underbelly to its already dark themes. Director Richard Sandle-Keynes has set it in a refugee camp, brilliantly designed by local artist, sculptor Chris Johns, whose twisted metal structures give an almost post-apocalyptic accent to the squalid and makeshift camp. The action is like a play within the play: the refugees forage around to gather props and cobble together costumes, a mix of casual and fantastical: Red Riding Hood literally wears a bright red hoodie; while the white cow is a large papery puppet gracefully manoeuvred by its cud/gum-chewing controllers (Samantha Brown and Charlie Vaughan).

This is a tight show, well directed by Richard, assisted by musical director Sam Young and his live orchestra’s brilliant tackling of Sondheim’s genius but demanding score.

Christopher Dobson and Jessica Friend as the Baker and his wife

There are stellar performances and utterly splendid vocals by the stand-out cast — the chorus numbers are especially ‘wow’. Hats, hoods and crowns off to all of the players, but to namecheck a few worthies/magical moments: Christopher Dobson and Jessica Friend play the bickering Bakers with tremendous warmth and wit and fine voices both; princes Daniel Denton-Harris and David Bolter’s duet Agony is just sublime; Jack and his mother — Georgie Wood and Judi Walton — bring a quasi-comic mother/son relationship to life, and both sing splendidly; witch Karen Welsh and Red Riding Hood Pollyanna Noonan gave great energy and lung power to their mischievous characters; narrator Tim Shackley and Rapunzel Rachel Connell are, respectively, a entertainly knowing and hysterical presence, and again great vocals; last and certainly not least Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella is a delightfully plain-speaking working-class lass and an owner of a truly outstanding voice that plucks at your very heartstrings — no need for Disney here!

My only quibble is with the play itself — the second half feels long; and maybe it’s the relentless musicality (practically all the dialogue is sung) but a couple of hours in it does feel a bit like an endurance challenge.

But by the time the denouement songs come, No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen, the audience’s hearts are won with the tremendous poignancy of this production in these dark days.

In Manchester the community is pulling together, holding vigils where ordinary folk of all cultures hold up banners declaring they ‘stand united’. While in Stratford the lyrics of Into the Woods ring in our ears: ‘Into the woods to find there’s hope/Of getting through the journey’.