The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds has been really starting to hit its stride this year, I think. Artistic Director James Brining has been bringing to life an array of dazzling new productions, with his production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang taking flight across the country and delighting audiences everywhere. Meanwhile, back in Leeds, a much darker production has become the new resident of the Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre: Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. With a book by James Lapine, and directed by Brining himself, I looked forward to seeing the Playhouse’s new show in collaboration with Opera North.
I can guarantee that Into the Woods is quite unlike any other musical you’ve seen before. The musical begins with a narrator (Nicholas Butterfield) introducing the audience to four fairy tale characters: Cinderella (Gillene Butterfield), Jack (Nicholas Watts), a baker (Dean Robinson) and his wife (Louise Collett). We learn that each of these characters has a wish, and over the course of the musical, we see them try and fulfil them. Their fairy tale worlds collide, and we meet a whole host of extraordinary characters who band together to overcome an evil that far outweighs their own wishes.
At first, Sondheim’s energetic, fast-paced musical takes some getting used to, with vocals from songs often overlapping one another and plenty of action happening on stage. However, once you do get used to it, you’ll soon realise that Into the Woods is quite a treat. There is a lot of awesome stuff going on in this production; we’ll start with the performances. There’s some lovely characterisation present from the whole company, so much so that it wouldn’t be right to single out any of the performers, since they all equally deserve the same amount of respect. The company works well as an ensemble, and you can really feel the energy pulsing throughout the auditorium and on the stage.
Their vocal performances are equally as wonderful to listen to, along with Musical Director Jim Holmes and the orchestra’s execution of Sondheim’s eclectic collection of songs. The performers sing with such clarity, and you can clearly see the amount of hard work and detail that’s been put into this aspect of the production alone. They mirror the detail present Rachael Canning’s puppet design; Jack’s cow is stunningly crafted out of an old rubbish bin and empty plastic milk bottles, and adds a further sense of charm and imaginative power to the visual aesthetic of the piece.
In addition to the characterisations and vocal performances, Colin Richmond’s set design is nothing short of aesthetically pleasing and ingenious. Brining has relocated the musical to a primary school, complete with children-sized chairs, octagonal tables and pictures of phonics and such on the walls. There’s also some chain swings that dangle from the cavernous ceiling of the theatre, and at the back of the stage there’s a large screen that has different locations projected onto it. All of these things, complete with Tim Mitchell’s simple-yet-effective lighting design, make for a well-considered, visually pleasing scenography.
More importantly, all of these aspects of the production come together to serve Brining’s vision and interpretation of the production in a cogent, very stylish manner. They work well in conveying the idea that stories are incredibly important in our lives, and furthermore, how important they are in the lives of children and the power of their imaginations.
This production of Into the Woods certainly confirms that the West Yorkshire Playhouse is on quite a streak with its productions. It’s a fun, family-friendly and has a good peppering of darkly comic moments and energised performances.
Into the Woods is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 25 June. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.
Photo: Manuel Harlan