It is hard to imagine a musical and a venue more suited to one another than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s witty melting pot of Grimm and Perrault fairytales Into The Woods and the gorgeously leafy Regents Park Open Air Theatre (the loveliest venue in London on a clear summer evening). The effect of starting the evening in partial dusk with darkness falling by the interval has rarely been so ideal. As there are few musicals that are more wordy, one can only imagine how difficult it must have been to get the clarity just right. Credit must firstly go to sound designer Mike Walker for his outstanding work. I only worry about how many people have missed the second act entirely, assuming that the ‘happy ever after’ that concludes the first act is the ending. The couple next to me certainly thought it was time to leave in spite of the lack of bows.
The episodic first act is a piece of theatre that is quite complete in itself, in which a childless baker and his wife embark on a quest to collect an array of items that will reverse the curse put on the Baker’s family by the witch next door, with the help and hindrance of assorted characters from other fairytales, who are all out to make their own wishes come true. The happy endings that ensue are then complicated when the murdered Giant’s wife (voiced by Judi Dench) wreaks her revenge. The lengths that people will go to in order to get their wishes through the manipulation of others or self-deception (often both) is one of Sondheim’s favourite themes, as are the subjects of parenting and self knowledge. By the time the last midnight strikes, everybody will have had to have lost something in order to move forward.
This is the only theatre where you’re lucky enough to get wittily timed appearances from visiting pigeons. The set by Soutra Gilmour, an intricate network of wooden platforms linked by ladders resembles a giant climbing frame and evokes just how easy it is to get lost and trapped in these woods. Regents Park ought to be given a special award for assembling the most wonderful ensemble casts and this is no exception. Co-directors Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s (who also provides the expressive choreography) attention to detail ensures that even the most minor characters are well drawn, including Valda Aviks’s cameo as Little Red Riding Hood’s knife-wielding Granny and Alice Fearn’s transformation from a young woman hidden from the world to embittered alcoholic in the rather thankless role of Rapunzel.
As the Baker’s Wife (the best role in the show), Jenna Russell (who was recently a highlight of the Sondheim Prom) brilliantly illuminates that fine line between being cunning and conniving. Rather like Sondheim’s arch manipulator Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, the Baker’s Wife is an eminently practical woman of humble means who knows what she wants and sets out to get it, but also has an inclination to fantasise. While offering Jack a few ‘magic’ beans in return for his cow isn’t as extreme as turning unsuspecting customers into meat pies, the idea of twisting morality for the greater good, “If the thing you do is pure in intent/If it’s meant and it’s just a little bent/Does it matter?” isn’t entirely dissimilar. Russell beautifully embodies being smitten with the idea of royalty in her envy of Cinderella’s escapades at the ball and her yearning glances at the princes. When Cinderella’s Prince sweeps her off her feet with the least romantic chat up line ever, “Life is often so unpleasant, you must know that as a peasant,” it has never seemed so unfair that sex and death always have to be interlinked like that.
In the role of the Baker’s Wife’s husband, Mark Hadfield is not a natural singer, but he gives the character bumbling charm in the first act and poignant bewilderment when he loses the woman who has been the brains of the operation. Helen Dallimore is an endearing, dreadlocked Cinderella more baffled that charmed by the Prince’s attentions and grows in strength to become the matriarch of the new ‘family’ at the end. Maybe in the sequel to Act II she marries the Baker. Michael Xavier (doubling up as a Freudian rather than suave Wolf who seduces Red Riding Hood and granny too) and Simon Thomas provide excellent comic foils as the two narcissistic princes, who get some of the best lines in the piece in their comic lament Agony and whose aesthetic resembles Russell Brand crossed with something out of Tolkien. The ever so glamorous Hannah Waddingham is unrecognisable in her old crone disguise and she brings her characteristic regal flair to the beautiful but powerless Witch. Credit must also go to the costume department for the whimsical with a touch of grunge costumes.
Timothy Sheader’s fascinating innovation in his staging is to have a runaway child as the narrator who stage manages the events. “Children may not obey,/But children will listen”, has never seemed so poignant in the way in which very adult issues can cause damage by entering the consciousness of a child through the power of words.
This is certainly a blissful production for the greatest living (and in my opinion all-time greatest) composer and lyricist’s 80th birthday year. My own wish is that the Donmar’s upcoming revival of Sondheim’s Passion reaches the same heights.
Into The Woods is playing at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park until 11th September. Booking via their website.