Into the Woods continues at continues at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, London until 31 October.
All Star Productions – housed above Ye Olde Rose & Crown pub in Walthamstow, London – proves that fairytales are timeless by re-locating Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods to modern day Britain, complete with a cocaine-snorting Rapunzel, a paedophile Wolf and an evil stepmother straight from TOWIE.
This cautionary fairytale about getting what you wish for is a comically dark masterpiece that, for my money, is one of the best-crafted musicals ever written. The book is deliciously complex and knotty, interweaving many well-known fairytales such as that of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. The only strand that’s not really part of the Grimm-Perrault European storytelling tradition is that of the childless Baker and his Wife, but such is Lapine’s deep understanding of the form that it fits as comfortably as a golden slipper.
The music is quirky and catchy, at times driving along with an inexorable pulse, at others times tender and heart-wrenching. It’s a show I’ve seen many times, and every time I’m moved to tears of both joy and sadness.
It is a relief, then, to discover that director Tim McArthur clearly understands the power and magic of this material and succeeds in communicating it down to his wonderful cast. No stranger to performing himself, McArthur remains behind the scenes this time, leaving his 17-strong cast to milk the material for all it’s worth. To help them, he has taken the liberty of re-setting the action in the present day, a genius stroke that allows for the trawling of countless tropes from 21st century British culture, from The Jeremy Kyle Show and The Only Way is Essex to William and Kate’s wedding and the selfie craze. (Is it now de rigueur to include a group selfie element in every stage musical?!)
The most successful expression of this cultural shoplifting is Jack and his Mother, played to perfection by Hugh O’Donnell and Sarah Waddell as weegie neds (that’s Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells for those not in the know). O’Donnell’s Jack – a character so gormless he can’t even make the love song to his “coo” (cow) Milky White rhyme – wears his tracksuit bottoms halfway down his arse, while his fag-ash Mother is a picture of council estate chic in a pink thong, jogging pants and Chelsea facelift. That both actors can sing so well is a bonus, and I have to say that O’Donnell and Waddell are the best I’ve ever seen in these roles. All too often, Jack and his Mother are cast as a young boy and prim-and-proper old lady, while here Jack (in O’Donnell’s professional debut) is obviously the product of a tattooed teen mum… and a tattooed teen mum who’s not prepared to take any crap from a giant. And all delivered in a broad lowland Scots accent! Genius.
Other standout performances are given by Paul Hutton and Jo Wickham, two artists with a strong theatrical pedigree, as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife; Emma Ralston’s Little Red Riding Hood – also played with a Scottish accent – is sweetly and comically realised; and Robert Oliver keeps the show moving along at a great pace thanks to his spunky and enthusiastic Narrator, played as something of a Stig of the Dump crafting the show – and sound effects – using the bits and pieces around him in his wooded campground. Credit here to set designer Gregor Donnelly for his static but highly effective wood, improvised from packing crates, camouflage nets and bits of actual tree.
Josh Pugh and Tim Phelps are also ‘rahlly rahlly’ worth mentioning, ’yah?’, for their hilarious turns as the promiscuous Princes, (although Pugh’s paedophile-inspired Wolf could’ve done with being slightly more lupine, in my opinion).
If I have a disappointment, it is only that the Witch – played by Helena Raeburn as, to be begin with, at least, a hunchbacked bag lady dragging her shopping basket behind her – doesn’t quite have the power and presence that the role needs to dominate the show, especially in Act II. A central character – played in past productions by such grandees as Bernadette Peters, Julia McKenzie and Hannah Waddingham, among others – the Witch should be a top-billed performer, and as good as Raeburn is (her ‘Last Midnight’, sung as a lullaby, is beautiful), she literally loses her power after her Act I transformation and becomes just another member of the ensemble, rather than the star of the show. (I also don’t understand the casting of Stuart Murray as the Mysterious Man; again, it’s not a slight on Murray’s good (debut) performance, it’s just that he’s about 30 years too young for the role).
Musically, it’s all kept on track by MD Aaron Clingham conducting his well-balanced four-piece band (of violin, viola, cello and flute/piccolo/alto flute – yes alto flute, what a treat!) from the piano. It’s not an easy score for the singers or the musicians – the counting must be hellish – but, barring a couple of points where the performers went out of step with the music or each other, Clingman did a good job of jelling it all together. Keeping everyone moving is McArthur, credited not for choreography but for the ‘musical staging’.
Such is the strength of Sondheim’s songwriting, Into the Woods – like most his shows – can be endlessly reinterpreted, and this is certainly one of the best interpretations I’ve seen of it. All-Star Productions’ version is a good few notches above what you’d expect to see in an above-the-pub show, and provides great value for money, as well as some wonderful performances to equal anything you’ll see in the West End.
My wish is that you catch it now – it’s probably your last chance to see a professional production of the show before Rob Marshall’s Hollywood movie adaptation opens here in January.