DIRECTOR Matthew Xia has relocated Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods to Manchester and a wood nearby. In the intimate theatre-in-the-round setting of The Royal Exchange individual fairy-tale characters can come alive as real Manc-accented people working through real dilemmas. The woods lie just beyond, represented on this occasion by a fragrant collection of Christmas trees. Forget the Hollywood film, this is the real deal.
So convincing is the quest's success that some audience members begin to leave the theatre
Into The Woods, written by James Lapine, cleverly interweaves four ancient and one new fairy tale into a complex quest story. An unnamed Baker (Alex Gaumond) and his wife (Amy Ellen Richardson) are wondering why they are unable to achieve their greatest wish and conceive a child. The next-door neighbour witch (Gillian Bevan) enlightens them: years ago she set a curse of future family barrenness on the Baker’s father, and it will only be removed if the Bakers gather four items, concoct a spell, reverse the curse and allow the witch to regain her former beauty.
They enter the woods. Along the way they encounter Jack (David Moorst), whose wish is to gain some income without selling his best friend, his only cow. They also meet Cinderella (Francesca Zoutewelle) and her sisters (Maimuna Memon and Michaela Bennison) and also Rapunzel (Isabelle Peters), whose wishes you’ll be familiar with. They cross paths again with Little Red Riding Hood (Natasha Cottriall) who appears to be happy as a brattish and manipulative teenager, but whose sublimated wish, and ours too, is for her to experience the realities of life: to grow up.
Stand out moments include the Wolf’s seduction of Little Red Riding Hood and the song Agony, sung by the two princes (Michael Peavoy and Marc Elliott) who struggle to cope emotionally with adversity but are always action-ready. The wolf, a character not dissimilar to Cinderella’s Prince, is also played by Michael Peavoy, though with fewer clothes. Agony is reprised and reworked later on, to the clear delight of the audience. It was criminally left out of the film.
The journey is beset by trials and tribulations, misunderstandings and mistakes, but by the end of an inventive and eventful act one the quest appears successful, with all set to live happily ever after. So convincing is the quest's success that some audience members begin to leave the theatre, having reached the traditional Christmas show ending.
They’d have had their money’s worth too.
This production is fascinatingly clever, director Matthew Xia and choreographer Jason Pennycooke have conquered the space constraints, creating a flow of movement which enhances the story of the quest, while the creative team bring the forest into the theatre while maintaining excellent sound and sight lines.
Alex Gaumond as the baker gives us a genuinely puzzled and good man, taken out of his comfort zone, and Amy Ellen Richardson as his wife has dramatic power and a singing voice to match. Francesca Zoutewelle as Cinderella handles the status change with flair, while Claire Brown returns to grace the Royal Exchange stage with a wonderfully scolding yet forgiving Scottish mother of teenage Jack, whose kind gormlessness is perfectly exemplified by David Moorst. Natasha Cottriall’s teenage Little Red Riding Hood has enough teenage strop to wind-up every adult for miles, while puppeteer Rachel Goodwin brings character to Milky White, the cow. Maxine Peake supplies the suitably angry off-stage ‘giant’ voice.
The second act is darker and takes us beyond the fairy-tale land. We’re now into adult realities as the characters learn that their actions have consequences, and achieving their dreams has come at a cost. The characters first fight among themselves, seeking a culprit to sacrifice, but eventually realise they can only defeat their common foe by working together.
The show was developed in the mid-80s, so perhaps that message was a response to the times, but it draws the only criticism of the show, the message of ‘community’ feels forced rather than a natural development of storyline.
This production is a must see for any Sondheim fan and stands to convert those yet to be enchanted. More please.
Into The Woods is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 16 January 2016