INTO THE WOODS
Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May, 2017
Stratford Musical Theatre Company presents an ambitious production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated and bitter fairy tale drama – a challenge for performers, whatever their provenance – and here their valiant efforts result in success.
The mash-up of elements familiar from fairy tales is a difficult sing; Sondheim doesn’t make it easy on his singers, but the cast for the most part handle the dissonance and unusual phrasings very well. Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella is a prime example of the quality of this ensemble, mastering the music as well as delivering a neat characterisation. Similarly, Pollyanna Noonan’s Little Red Riding Hood is an assured and feisty performance. She sports a red (what else!) hoody – the whole piece has a charity-shop aesthetic: the setting is contemporary, a refugee camp and the residents are sharing stories, the same stories familiar to us. A gentle reminder from director Richard Sandle-Keynes that refugees are people just like us. The action is brought right up to us – it’s like we’re all huddled around a camp fire. When, in the second act, the characters are cast adrift from their happy-ever-afters and wander in the forest, facing devastation and loss at the hands (well, the feet) of a vengeful giant at large, they are refugees too. It’s an interesting approach and works well, offering moments of cleverness, for example the climbing of Rapunzel’s hair and the shadows playing on polythene fences amusingly depict dancers at the Prince’s ball and the violent fate of the Big Bad Wolf.
Speaking of whom, Bardia Ghezelbash makes a sinister Wolf, but he needs to take care that his volume doesn’t drop so much it detracts from his characterisation. Indeed, there are moments throughout the show, where mic cues are not picked up and lines of dialogue and lyric are lost. David Bolter’s Prince Charming comes alive when he’s singing, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Daniel Denton-Harris in a fun and detailed performance) is a definite highlight. Karen Welsh’s Witch is suitably eccentric and twisted in one of the show’s camper characterisations, and Christopher Dobson’s Baker comes into his own when singing the more mournful moments in the score.
Under the baton of Sam Young, a tight orchestra plays almost throughout the piece, delivering Sondheim’s jaunty, romantic and idiosyncratic music with verve and atmosphere. If only those damned mics were cued properly!
Patchy bits aside, this is an impressive production: the ensemble singing together sounds especially great. The star turn comes from Jessica Friend as the Baker’s Wife, an assured, captivating presence with many colours – Friend delights whenever she’s on.
The piece has a timely pertinence: the vengeful giant represents evil in the land, and the play questions our responses to terror. Do we kill the giant or show forgiveness?
It also points out that happy-ever-afters don’t exist and getting what you want isn’t the end of your problems. You’re not out of the woods and perhaps you never will be. We may be grown-ups but that doesn’t stop us from wishing that things were other than they are.
An engaging and entertaining evening, slickly presented and courageous enough to go beyond a cosy and conventional setting. And I can’t stop thinking of the old joke: Did you find the refugees’ camp? Some of them, yes.