wed 29/05/2024

Into the Woods, Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

Into the Woods, Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Into the Woods, Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Excellent vocal performances enrich a Sondheim classic

Giant's revenge: Miranda Bevan (Stepmother), Cordelia Fish (Florinda) and Anna Barry (Lucinda)All images by Manuel Harlan

Opera North’s ongoing Ring isn’t taking up much of the chorus’s time, which presumably is one of the reasons that many of its members have decamped half a mile east to collaborate with the West Yorkshire Playhouse in an eye-popping new staging of Sondheim’s Into The Woods. That opera companies can and should stage Sondheim is vindicated by this production: the musical values are superb, my only niggle being that James Holmes’s excellent pit players are hidden offstage.

The tricksy ensemble numbers are dazzling, with every word and melodic line thrillingly clear.

James Brining sets the opening in an intricately realised primary school classroom, accurate down to the reading book bags and wall display of “I wish…” statements tacked to the walls. Which serves to remind us that Sondheim’s edgy fairytales are nominally the stuff of childhood, and hinting at a safety-obsessed culture oversensitive to the dangers of leaving the school building without multiple risk assessments: Nicholas Butterfield’s Narrator is an affably assertive teacher directing a troupe of pupils clad in hi-vis jackets.Gillene Butterfield in Into the Woods

The room is swept away as the plot unfolds, leaving only two sets of child-sized tables and chairs onstage. The birds which Gillene Butterfield’s Cinderella (pictured above) summons are represented by flapping school exercise books, with Milky White the cow fashioned from assorted milk cartons. Sets of playground swings descend later, the perfect vehicles for Warren Gillespie and Ross McInroy’s princes to deliver a sharply witty “Agony” in Act 1.

Scene from Into the WoodsColin Richmond’s elaborate set designs make brilliant use of the Playhouse’s technical resources, but you suspect that this work would still succeed in a stripped-down staging with piano accompaniment. James Lapine’s elegant book is an ideal match for Sondheim’s score, so it’s a pity that some of his lines are delivered in such hammy fashion in the long first half’s opening scenes.

Presumably this is a nod to many of the characters’ pantomimic associations, though many of the jokes fall flat as a result. The grisly dispatch of David Llewellyn’s oily wolf should be blackly comic, but Brining turns it into crude farce.

And then, unexpectedly, the staging finds its feet, the pace slowing a little and the characters given space to breathe. Claire Pascoe’s Witch (pictured above with Amy Freston's Rapunzel) is a genuinely scary stage presence, and the evolving relationship between Dean Robinson and Louise Collett as the Baker and his Wife is beautifully characterised (pictured below). Nicholas Watt’s Jack is annoyingly goofy at first, but calms down and wises up. A host of smaller parts are well handled, particularly Gordon D Shaw’s obsequious Steward.

Scene from Into the WoodsNewcomers to the work may be discombobulated by the abrupt change of mood in Act 2. The Giant’s Wife is the stuff of nightmares here, Ben Harrison’s sound design giving her assaults a visceral impact. “Agony”’s blackly funny reprise brings the house down, and the Prince’s slimy seduction of the Baker’s Wife is a moment to savour. “Your Fault”, Sondheim’s matchless G&S pastiche, is taken at a real lick but never feels rushed.

I’d forgotten quite how affecting the ending of this piece is, the surviving characters realising through bitter experience that it’s best to be careful what you wish for. Grand stuff, my few reservations aside – and how refreshing to see a multi-generational, ethnically diverse audience lapping the work up with a relish that you probably wouldn’t see if this production had been mounted at the Grand Theatre.

The tricksy ensemble numbers are dazzling, with every word and melodic line thrillingly clear


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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