Into The Woods – a fairytale musical in which the action takes place amid woodland – staged among the trees of Regent’s Park; it couldn’t fail to be a magical production…
Sondheim’s musical, which re-imagined the fairytale world long before Shrek came along, is a favourite of many a musical theatre fan. With the Open Air Theatre regularly producing impressive musicals, including the Laurence Olivier Award-winning Hello Dolly last year, expectations for this production were as high as a princess’s tower.
Or, in fact, as high as the show’s set, a towering rusty brown and green labyrinth of walkways and ladders which stands above a grassy forest floor where the stage should be. There is, of course, no need to create a forest setting with Regent’s Park’s own handily in-built flora providing a more than adequate backdrop to Soutra Gilmour’s lattice-work set.
Inspired by the enchanting stories of the Brothers Grimm, everything about Timothy Sheader and Liam Steele’s production smacks of imagination. From the unusual casting of a child narrator – framing the story clearly as an invention of and treatise on childhood, growing up and parenting – to the creation of the Judi Dench-voiced giant and from the Jedward-haired ugly sisters to some marvellously macabre gore.
To say too much about the touches of design and directional wit would be to detract from the treat that comes with the surprise, but they are many and all hit the spot faster than an apple from an old lady’s basket.
While the first act of the musical, in which the Baker and his wife must collect a series of ingredients for their witchy neighbour, remains mainly light-hearted, as twilight turns to evening and the setting sun gives way to black night, the musical, fittingly, takes a darker turn. It feels as though the park is working in tandem with the production.
The impressive ensemble cast delights in Sondheim’s music and electric quick-fire lyrics, among them Sondheim-ites Jenna Russell, who won a Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in Sunday In The Park With George, and Hannah Waddingham, last seen wowing audiences in A Little Night Music. Here both again prove their worth, Russell finding the balance between honesty and desperation in the Baker’s Wife and Waddingham reinventing herself as a bent, unhinged, emotionally immature witch. Michael Xavier, soon to be seen in Love Story, swaps between the denim-clad feral sex appeal of a Wolf slightly reminiscent of an early David Essex and a prince who is something of a cross between costume drama Rupert Everett and Adam Ant. Alongside such seasoned West End stars, relative newcomer Beverly Rudd is entirely endearing as Little Red Riding Hood from the moment she tries to sing while gorging on cakes.
Do they all live happily ever after? No, this is not that type of fairytale. Wishes have consequences and what the characters want may not actually be what they need. Like all good stories set in a faraway fantasy land, it has an emotional and moral truth at its heart, which makes it all the more powerful. Though some of the characters may not have a happy ending, the audience does.