Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods gets a 21st century makeover this week at the Cockpit Theatre, as All Star Productions join forces with Trilby Productions to revive Tim McArthur’s adaptation of the popular musical. First seen in 2014, the show returns with an ensemble of seventeen larger-than-life characters, all drawn from modern day Britain.
“By transporting the traditional fairy tales into the 21st century, the story resonates with and reflects society as it is now,” explains Tim, who both directs and performs as the Baker in the new production. “The characters will be familiar to reality TV viewers of shows ranging from Jeremy Kyle to TOWIE and Made in Chelsea. Another unique quality is that it’s staged in the round – I want the audience to feel they are part of the story. This also gives scope within the staging to convey better the sense of journey.”
Into The Woods draws on popular fairy tales including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood to tell a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. “Into the Woods is about loss, wanting things that you maybe shouldn’t want, taking things for granted, wanting to be happy, realising that maybe what you have is better than wishing for more,” says Tim. “It’s about dysfunctional families and more importantly how an action you make may have consequences on someone else. This is of course all told through the traditional format of well-known fairy tales, which are interwoven with each other into the simple main story of a baker and his wife. They’re desperate for a child but the witch has put them under a curse, preventing them from having a baby unless they find unique and unusual items which will reverse the witch’s curse. Their future happiness depends on their search.”
Tim directed the show on its initial run in 2014, and says he’s thrilled to return four years later in the role of the Baker. “In 2014, the producers originally asked me to direct the piece and play the part of the Baker, but because I wanted to create a new fresh vision for the show I knew it would be a challenge to both direct and perform. So, I decided to just focus my attention on the direction. Now we have in a way tested the look and feel of the show, I know it works. I have loved and known this show for nearly 30 years, so it’s a dream come true to play the Baker – one of the best male roles in musical theatre.”
The show’s cast also includes Jo Wickham, who was a member of the 2014 company and reprises her role as the Baker’s Wife, alongside several new faces. “About 80% of the cast are new and weren’t in the 2014 production, so it’s exciting to create the characters with the new actors’ energy and ideas and see how that dynamic interacts with the interpretations of the returning actors,” says Tim. “The main factor for me as a director when casting is to bring together a group of actors who are comfortable with who they are, so we can create a safe space in rehearsal to be able to play and experiment. Particularly with an ensemble piece it’s vital that there are no dominant egos. The show is the ego and that’s it. This cast are nice and talented people who care about the production and are excited to be in the rehearsal room.
“They are a mix of performers with whom I have worked as a director and/or fellow actor plus new people, so we have a creative blend of familiarity and new impetus as we come together as a group for the first time and go ‘into the woods’. Our ensemble includes a range of ages and diversity of background and experience – performers with extensive West End pedigrees, including the Rapunzel from the original London production of Into the Woods (Mary Lincoln) who returns as Cinderella’s stepmother, to performers early in their careers.”
But the cast isn’t all that’s new this time around: “Both personally and as a director, my life has changed a lot in the past four years. I very much believe that we continue to learn, grow and develop as people and you naturally bring those life experiences into the creation of the show. One of the greatest aspects of Stephen Sondheim’s work is that you continually find new meanings and emotions within both the text and music of the story.
“My first Sondheim show was a production of Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1988. I instantly fell in love with his music and lyrics, and the love affair began. Into the Woods was the third Sondheim show I saw; I was 15 years old and I saw it three times. The structure of the show is so clever, and the story is so relevant in today’s world where commerciality drives everything and encourages us to always want more and to never be happy with what we have.”
Tim isn’t only an actor and director; he’s also a singer and presenter, who can currently be heard every Friday presenting The Curtain Up Show on Resonance 104.4 FM. With so many strings to his bow, choosing highlights proves a tough challenge: “That is a really difficult question. I trained to be an actor, and since leaving drama school I have been given so many wonderful opportunities in so many different areas of the entertainment industry. I never originally wanted to be a director or a producer, or perform my solo show or even be a TV/radio presenter. But highlights are probably performing my solo show Mountains in New York at Feinstein’s 54 Below earlier this year, and playing Sam Byck in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins a few years back – and of course the chance to revisit this fabulous show.”