★★★★ | Into The Woods (National Tour)
A baker and his wife long for a child, but a curse placed on their family many years ago prevent them from having their hearts desire. But when the Witch who cursed them offers to lift her spell over the family in exchange for them bringing her four specific items; the two of them set out into the woods on a quest which interweaves four very familiar stories.Photo Credit : Manuel Harlan
Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic fairy tale mash up is a curious beast. The first act is a charming, comical and whimsical look at the intertwining tales of four familiar stories, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. The familiarity of the stories and the light comic moments wash over you with a feeling of warm nostalgia, bringing the first act to a close with a happy ending, as all good musicals (and indeed, as all good fairy tales) should. The second act, however, takes a much darker tone, reflected in the subject matter, the musical numbers and the presentation, as Sondheim bleakly examines the impact adults have on their children and how death affects us all. Jack is raised by a single mother, Rapunzel and the witch have a dysfunctional mother / daughter relationship, Cinderella pines for her dead mother and the Baker has his own issues with his absent father. Sondheim certainly pulls no punches as to how parents influence their offspring.
Performance wise, the co-production between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North is a visual and aural treat. Colin Richmond’s set design starts as a faithful recreation of a primary school classroom, which transforms with remarkable versatility as the tale unfolds, and the staging of the play within a school setting reinforces the themes of parental influence in the second act. The forest of playground swings added eerie gravitas to the set which was enhanced by the digital projections at the rear of the stage. Puppetry further laid on the childhood charm and there is a ‘giant’ character as the second act opens which is enough to induce both laughter and reawaken childhood fears simultaneously.
The cast sang remarkably, as one would expect, and it was a genuine pleasure to see a musical where absolutely every cast member could sing beautifully; providing expression, emotion and perfect diction in every line. Claire Pascoe excelled as The Witch both in acting and singing, whilst Ross McInroy had velvet voice which I could have happily listened to all evening.
Sondheim can often be quite heavy going, and the second act certainly felt very dark (and perhaps just a tad long), as it became increasingly bleak in its portrayal of what happens “after happily ever after”. But despite this, you can’t help but leave the theatre feeling that you have been on a journey, as the show itself presents as somewhat of a metaphor for the woods themselves – the more you journey into it, the darker it becomes.
Into The Woods is a co-production between Opera North (www.operanorth.co.uk) and West Yorkshire Playhouse (www.wyp.org.uk) and is playing until 25th June 2016. For details or to book tickets visit their websites or call the theatre on 0113 213 7700