As a theatregoer of more years than you’ve had hot dinners, one of my pet hates is those rare occasions when, for whatever reason, you don’t get a programme. Alas, the Menier’s printers have let them down and they ran out of programmes for Into The Woods on Saturday afternoon, and don’t expect another delivery until Wednesday. Lack of a programme makes it so much harder to review a show, so forgive me in advance, gentle reader, if I offer up any factual inaccuracies!
In case you didn’t know – and I’m sure you did – Into The Woods, rather like the film Shrek (which appeared 15 years later), takes fairy-tale characters and jumbles them up into a preposterous interweaving of all their tales, culminating with the fine achievement of Happy Ever After status at the interval; and then the second act undoes all that good work by showing how Happy Ever After is an unattainable myth. Relationships fall apart; the land is beset by terror; people die.
Despite the fact that it’s had a number of revivals over the years, we’d never seen the stage show live before. We’d seen a DVD recording of the New York stage production starring Bernadette Peters; and we saw and enjoyed the film adaptation last year. But it’s never been a show that I have ever felt I’ve properly understood or appreciated. Just as Shakespeare has his Problem Plays, Sondheim has his Difficult Musicals and I think this a prime example of the genre. It’s a show that doesn’t give you a moment to stop and stare, to think and reflect. From the start to the finish you’re constantly processing data, from the variety of its characters to the relentlessness of its music. The lyrics alone are enough to do your head in. You remember the young Mozart being criticised by the establishment in Amadeus for writing “too many notes”? Here Sondheim gives us “too many words”. It’s exhausting. I honestly don’t know how the cast cope with it all (which they do, brilliantly, by the way).
As another indication of how good a production this is, yesterday was the first time I’ve seen it and not felt it was way too long. Structurally there is a problem; because the end of Act One ties everything up so perfectly, and everyone lives happily ever after, that you feel there is no need for an Act Two. That’s why it sometimes feels too long, because deep down inside you feel everything is already all done and dusted. No wonder the opening announcement from Prince Charming reminded us that there was an interval and that they hoped we would return afterwards. So many people must just get up and leave at the interval thinking it was one of these new-fangled, 90 minutes, no interval, short, sharp shows. A third indication of the strength of the production comes with the fact that not only is the Baker’s Wife in tears at the end of the show, Mrs Chrisparkle damn nearly was too, and it’s a rare show indeed that can stir such emotion in her.
This production comes courtesy of New York’s Fiasco Theater, and is the 2015 Off-Broadway production that has been parachuted into the Menier, with its pared-down, informal, and intimate approach to presentation. The proscenium arch is decorated from top to bottom with piano strings and keyboards; a backdrop of tightly fitting ropes suggest the dense woods that many of the cast will Into at some point; a few chairs are placed around the edges of the set where the actors can sit whilst they’re not engaged in the action (and from where they can make musical and/or vocal interpolations); and on a floating island, moving around the stage, is one central piano for Evan Rees, the musical director, to pound for the best part of two and three quarter hours. To add to the informality and intimacy, the cast idle on to the stage in dribs and drabs, some taking up conversation with the people in the front row; we had a nice chat with Steffan Lloyd-Evans about lunch at Wagamama; he assured us not to be scared, he wasn’t going to bring us up onto the stage or anything like that – which I must say makes a nice change for me after my recent Edinburgh experiences. I even looked after his horse for a short while in the first act (no, really). As the second act opened, Liz Hayes (Jack’s mum) spoke to the ladies to our right and declared them to be #TeamBassoon, as that was the corner of the stage where her instrument was kept when not in use – and a mighty fine bassoonist she is too.
The whole cast give a fantastic ensemble performance as they take on the myriad roles in the piece, swapping musical and sound-effect activities with each other; those sitting to the side largely observing the show dispassionately. Although that was distinctly not the case when Steffan Lloyd-Evans and Andy Grotelueschen as the two princes started teasing each other with silly voices, creating an uncontrollable wave of hilarity that reached our not only to the audience but also to their fellow cast members. I really enjoyed Laura Tebbutt as the Baker’s wife; she completely inhabited the character and emphasised the reality of her predicaments even though she’s surrounded by this fairy-tale world; she also has a great stage presence and beautiful singing voice. Similarly, we both thought Claire Karpen as Cinderella was terrific, performing endless pratfalls because of those awkward crystal slippers, really bringing out the emotion of the realities of how Happiness isn’t necessarily Ever After even in post fairy-tale marriage. National-treasure-in-waiting Harry Hepple (whom we loved in both Privates on Parade and Pippin) is on great form as the rather bewildered Baker, capturing the nice comedy moments in his understated way but also giving it large with the emotion of the songs. The aforementioned Mr Lloyd-Evans, who had already got me on his side with our initial conversation before the show started, was a brilliant Prince Charming, and made a great double act with Mr Grotelueschen as the two princes expressed their Agony in song. The latter also showed how emotionally you can portray the plight of a cow with just a plaintive moo. I also loved how Vanessa Reseland’s harridan of a witch turns into, quite frankly, a sex goddess. But the whole cast give it everything and it’s immensely watchable and enjoyable all the way through.
Unsurprisingly, the whole season is now sold out, and it chalks up another winner for the Menier – and this is definitely the most entertaining, expressive and emotional presentation of Into The Woods that we have seen. Now I just hope they’ll sell me a programme and send it by post to keep my collection up!