Into the Woods is performed by the Guildford School of Acting 3rd Years at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
The Guildford School of Acting’s love-in with the works of Stephen Sondheim – Into the Woods follows their summer productions of Anyone Can Whistle and Company, and a little bird (a Moor-hen?) warbles Sweeney Todd is being planned – continues to deliver and delight.
James Lapine’s cautionary tale of ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ is an ideal starter for Sondheim first-timers and Disney commendably brought this masterpiece to a younger, wider audience with their simplified, sanitised movie version.
All credit to them for that and, on the subject of Sondheim on celluloid, do not miss Imelda Staunton’s remarkable performance in Gypsy which the BBC filmed at the Savoy for showing over Christmas.
But the GSA gives us the REAL Into the Woods, superbly directed by Anna Linstrum, a musical of two halves, the first lighter, full of love, laughter and hope, the second dark and complex with the sh*t hitting the fan in great clods, redeemed only by the positive spin of the closing tableau.
Linstrum winds the classic fairytales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel round the new, central story about the childless baker and his wife with great visual dexterity, making full use of all levels of GSA’s Ivy Theatre and a stunning set.
The main hurdle of a lengthy Act I, which in the wrong hands can drag and test an audience’s patience, is effortlessly skipped over, the lickety-spit pace making 90 minutes pass in a flash of dazzling staging and the magic of one of Sondheim’s finest scores.
Above all, Into the Woods is the ultimate team musical, with a number of almost equal roles making a perfect vehicle for a dozen or a so students to show off triple threat skills.
The Witch (powerfully voiced by Sophie Reeves in ‘Stay With Me’ and the magnificent ‘Last Midnight’) always takes the final bow but, for me, the piece stands or falls on the performances of the Baker and his Wife and here Adam Pettit and Lauren Byrne do an exceptional job.
Pettit’s heartfelt ‘No More’ farewell to his mysterious ‘dad’ and Byrne’s beautifully sung and acted ‘Moments in the Woods’ are Act II highlights on an evening full of them.
Petite Millie Thompson must have been a good thing to be cast as Little Red but she delightfully makes the part her own, while Tessa Kadler’s measured ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ is a big improvement on Anna Kendrick’s nasal whine of a Cinderella in the film.
The gift roles of the two posh ‘raised to be charming, not sincere’ princes enable Jack Watson (also the Wolf) and Michael Levi to have tremendous fun with the hilarious ‘Agony’, while ‘Giants in the Sky’, a favourite of mine, is in very safe hands with Joe Etherington’s Jack.
Will Arundell (Narrator) is always a pleasure to listen to and Eve Norris, Josie Kemp and Jessica Croll clearly relish the over-the-top-ness of their stepmother and spoilt-daughters roles.
Instead of the usual panto-style Milky-White, we have the interesting variation of a silly moo (cow) in human guise with multi-tasking Alice Gruden playing her among various other cameos.
Marina Lawrence-Mharra (Rapunzel), Veronica Van Muyen (Jack’s Mother) and William Beckerleg, who doubles up as The Steward and as a very nimble Hen, make up a cast that is hard to fault.
My only criticism is that the Witch’s transformation to her former youth and beauty would have been more striking if she had been made up more raddled to start with.
It must be a joy, though not without the usual challenges that Sondheim loves to pose, for musical director Nathan Jarvis and his merry band of seven to play and they are at the top of their games.
Full marks also to Michael Livermore’s imaginative use of sound, which is more than a little frightening in Act II, Phyllida Crowley-Smith (additional staging), Roger Ness for set and costume design and Andrew Voller’s highly effective lighting.
Student theatre doesn’t get much better – this stands right at the top of my four star range – and the Class of ’15 have done Sondheim, their tutors and themselves proud.
They’ve made a great start. Now comes the hard bit – turning what these talented graduates are best at and passionate about into a living. We can only say bravo and good luck.