Review: Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

Once upon a time… Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine got together to write a musical based on classic fairy tales, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. But there’s a twist to this tale: the happy ending comes halfway through, and on reflection in Act 2 turns out to be not quite so happy after all – mostly because none of the characters is satisfied even after they get their wish. A lot of the show’s appeal lies in that simple fact: after listening to their stories all our lives, it’s oddly comforting to discover our favourite fairy tale characters are just as flawed as the rest of us.

In this revival of his 2014 adaptation, Tim McArthur takes that idea one step further, bringing the characters out of their fairy tales altogether and into a world inspired by 21st century reality TV. TOWIE, Jeremy Kyle and Made in Chelsea are all recognisable influences – although interestingly, the Baker and his Wife seem to hail more from Greggs than from Bake Off.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

It’s a clever concept, and works reasonably well in terms of entertainment value as the various characters are introduced, although it doesn’t really go anywhere after that. The story – and some of the characters – remain very much rooted in a world of myth and magic, where it jars slightly that even these very modern characters can’t just whip out their phones and Google how to get what they want.

For lovers of fairy tales, the musical itself is an enchanting blend of familiar and original. The story centres around a childless Baker (Tim McArthur) and his Wife (Jo Wickham), who have to collect four obscure items to break the curse put on them by the Witch (Michele Moran) so they can have a baby. Into the woods they go, where they stumble into the paths of Jack (Jamie O’Donnell), Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson), Rapunzel (Louise Olley) and Red Riding Hood (Florence Odumosu) – who just happen to have all the things they need. All seems well, until in a considerably darker Act 2, a giant starts terrorising their village and the characters are forced back into the woods to fight for survival.

This production is staged in the round, which both works and at the same time, really doesn’t. On the plus side, it does mean that the audience feels surrounded by the action; you never quite know where an actor is going to pop out of next. On the other, even from my relatively high vantage point, I couldn’t see or hear much of what was happening on the other side of Joana Dias’ impressive but complicated set of many ladders, and consequently felt like I was missing out on half the action. This wasn’t helped by the score, which frequently has actors speaking or singing over each other, and to make matters worse, there were also a few technical problems with the sound system at this particular performance.

Photo credit: David Ovenden

In spite of these issues, the cast are generally very good, with standout vocal performances from Michele Moran and Abigail Carter-Simpson as the Witch and Cinderella respectively. Meanwhile Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke bring the house down with their hilariously posh rendition of Agony (yah), and Jamie O’Donnell and Madeleine MacMahon are good fun as Glaswegian Jack and his chain-smoking, beer-swigging Mother – although their accents are at times so thick, particularly in the musical numbers, that it can become tricky to make out what they’re saying.

Though not without some problems, Into The Woods is nonetheless an ambitious and entertaining show, which puts an interesting new spin on a classic whilst retaining the wit and charm of the original. Worth a visit for fairy tale family fun.

Interview: Tim McArthur, Into The Woods

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.”