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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Into The Woods
Open Air Theatre    Summer 2010

Despite my dislike of fairy tales and outside performances, and a limited knowledge of Stephen Sondheim, I found myself captivated by director Timothy Sheader’s Into The Woods, a production that provides late summer escapism with an undertone of adult bite.

In this musical adaptation (first performed in the mid-80’s, and formerly a Broadway show) four well-known tales by the Grimm Brothers – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Baker and his Wife, Rapunzel – metamorphose into a coherent whole that examines the deep-held dreams and desires of protagonists whose particular quests can only be realized by venturing into the dangerous, mysterious and unforgiving woods.

A boy narrator glues the stories together and his presence is a reminder that these tales come to us as children but often speak more cogently to the adults who read them to us. The stage is a labyrinth of ladders and foliage to make material the twining and twisting barks of a wood that can be read metaphorically to represent the lost child that resides in each us.

The quests encompass the theme of being loved and wanted, in whatever form that takes, be it the Baker’s wife (a poignant portrayal by Jenna Russell) longing for a child; or the love of Jack (Ben Stott) for his cow, Milky-white – the striking puppetry of Rachael Canning here creating a bovine that, worked by two actors, seems all the more real for its disjoined body.

Even the staunchest musical theatre lovers might agree that, occasionally, lyrics concede to banality in order to fit the score: here, it is a rare treat to hear Sondheim’s intelligent, witty, and simply clever lyrics delivered with style, pace and panache by a uniformly talented cast.

Beverly Rudd is perfect as bun-eating Little Red Ridinghood and Michael Xavier is a sexily persuasive Wolf; doubling as Cinderella’s Prince, he joins Rapunzel’s Prince (Simon Thomas) in stealing the show’s first half with ‘Agony’ (happily reprised in part two), a number that joyfully makes the case for the trials of men in love. Judy Dench’s voice animates a nicely scary giant, helped by clever puppetry once again.

From the incrementally building prologue (Into the Woods) through to the final ‘Children Will Listen’ the show involves us for an extremely swift 2 hours 45 minutes. The second half is darker in content, and the production is not recommended for very young children, a fact perhaps encouraged by an 8 PM start.

With Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations in full swing this year, this is a fitting accolade to a man whose prolific catalogue includes writing the lyrics to ‘West Side Story’ in 1957. Don’t fight it: this could be your entry into fairy tales, parks, and Sondheim.

Anita Butler

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Review of  Into The Woods - Open Air Theatre 2010