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.
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.
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.
Into The Woods is at the Cockpit Theatre until 24th June.