fri 09/12/2022

Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath review - If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise | reviews, news & interviews

Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath review - If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise

Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath review - If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise

Prepare to be dazzled and disoriented in a phantasmagorical festival of theatrical magic

Audrey Brisson and Julian Bleach in Into The Woods - A fairy godmother, sorry, gigantic rose: it's that kind of show Marc Brenner

What will get audiences back into theatres? Revivals of old favourites. Works from popular genres like musicals. Pantomimes. This production of Into The Woods kinda ticks all those boxes, but it also ticks the box that matters most. It is a unique experience – not podcastable, not downloadable, not multiplexable. 

Co-directors, Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman, have worked together before and it shows in a vision that is both coherent yet also continually surprising, even a press night audience (who’ve seen it all – or think they have) going full “Wow” time and again, as the production’s sheer size and confidence threatened to breach the walls of this beautiful old theatre.

The fairytales we heard as small children were all larger than life, but we, literally and metaphorically, grow out of them don’t we? Well, we’re back for one evening only, open-mouthed, goggle-eyed and full of wonder. What a joy!

James Lapine’s book, 30-odd years on from its Broadway debut, takes on a new resonance for a generation used to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which characters from separate stories meet to cooperate and bicker. In this show, Jack’s in town with his magic beans, Rapunzel is letting down her hair, Cinderella is going to the ball and Red Ridinghood has a fateful meeting with the Big Bad Wolf. Pulling the strands together on a quest of their own is the Baker and his Wife who need something from each of these characters to lift the witch’s curse that has denied them a child.

Things turn out rather well for our familiar friends in Act One. They get the rewards their enterprise and courage deserve, but there’s already an uneasiness in the air. Red Ridinghood is no less mardy for her escape from the Wolf, Rapunzel is bitter after her years lost trapped in her tower, Cinderella finds that her Prince may be charming but he’s not sincere, the Baker finds that a needy baby is a tougher gig than kneady bread and, worst of all, Jack has brought down a vengeful giant who is terrorising the land. 

Life proves, as t’were, to be anything but a fairytale.

All this disappointment, darkness and dread is underlined by Stephen Sondheim’s words and music, rhymes knocking us off-balance, melodies twisting and turning, emotions soaring high and dipping low. It’s always an irony to reflect on the fact that Sondheim once wrote a musical called Anyone Can Whistle, because it’s nigh on impossible to whistle these tunes, which is, naturally, one of their delights tilting the production even further away from the Disneyfied world of singalongs and comfortably neat resolutions. We’re never sure where we are in these woods, a liminal space that licenses transgression but exacts a price. 

The cast (pictured above) deal with the considerable technical and dramatic challenges superbly, not a weak link to be found. They’re led by two (dare I say) giants of the genre in Nicola Hughes, whose Witch is never less than nasty, but gains a pathos when she loses her powers, and Julian Bleach, who goes full Robert Helpmann as the Mysterious Man, a fourth wall breaking presence who doesn’t exactly catch children, but doesn’t help them much either. 

Henry Jenkinson has a lot of fun with his Prince Charming, hilarious in his seduction of an extremely cooperative Alex Young, wonderful as the Baker’s Wife. Lauren Conroy makes a remarkable stage debut as a wee bolshy flame-haired Scottish Red Riding Hood, who reminded me of someone in politics north of the border. And Rhashan Stone as the Baker? I just hope your insurance is rock solid sir, I really do.

There’s room in theatre for wordy reflections on the human condition, for uproarious comedy, for tear-jerking tragedy – all work if the base material is good and the cast and creatives commit 100% to their roles. Sometimes there’s a little magic in the air and that commitment appears to be 110% or more. It’s an impossibility I know, but strange, scary, saucy things happen when you go into the woods…     

 

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