Into The Woods

Into The Woods

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09/12/15

Royal Exchange Manchester

As Christmas draws inexorably nearer, the Royal Exchange have indulged themselves in the family-friendly epic that is Into The Woods. As ever, Manchester’s premier theatre aren’t doing things by halves. With a cast of nineteen and a running time of three hours, Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated fairytale mashup is a challenging production in every sense of the word.

I have to put my hand up at this stage and admit that Sondheim isn’t a great favourite in our household. Sure, James Lapine’s lyrics are quirky and clever but sometimes, I find myself wishing that Sondheim would just offer us a couple of great melodies, something to sing in the shower. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this is a superb production and that Sondheim fans (of which there are many) are going to be delighted with what’s on offer here. It’s a big step up too from the recent lacklustre movie version. Certainly the audience on the night we attended were clearly thrilled by what they saw and, little wonder, because choreographing a cast of this size in and around the compact circular stage of the Exchange requires the kind of discipline normally reserved for synchronised swimming events.

ITW is essentially an amalgamation of all your favourite fairytales – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzle… given a satirical twist. The first half of the show offers a traditional happy ending and the second, gleefully subverts that, pointing out that most situations don’t tend to fit into such a convenient format. In a strong ensemble cast it’s tough to pick out favourites but Gillian Bevan, as The Witch, certainly casts a compelling spell whenever she’s on stage, while Alex Gaumond as The Baker, is a likeable performer with a plaintive singing voice. A shout must also go to young David Moorst as Jack, who’s gormless manner garners much laughter.

There’s plenty here to delight an audience, not least the ingenious staging, which manages to make a convincing forest sprout up right in front of our eyes; and there’s a wolf-evisceration scene that genuinely made the audience gasp in a ‘how did they do that?’sort of way. Oh yes, there’s also a fleeting appearance by a golf buggy… well, why not?

This is a Christmas cracker of a show, suitable for people of all ages, even if you won’t go home singing any of the songs, because they’re just a bit too complicated for that. If you’re planning a seasonal family outing, this could be the perfect  thing to get you into the festive spirit. Book now while the going’s good.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Into The Woods

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12/1/15

As I have documented elsewhere on this site, musicals are not really my cup of char. But there are a few I love (Little Shop of Horrors, Matilda, Cabaret…) , and these make me retain the hope that occasionally, others may appeal. Unfortunately I will not be adding Into The Woods to the short list on the positive side of the slate. It’s not that this Stephen Sondheim mash-up of six of the world’s most popular fairytales was bad, exactly; bits of it were wonderful. But on the whole, it fails to ignite. And not just because of Johnny Depp’s godawful pedophile wolf.

But let’s start with the positive. Meryl Streep is fabulous. Of course she is; when is she not? She clearly relishes her role as The Witch and plays it with enough vim and gusto to make her scenes, at least, compelling. And James Corden’s good too. I know he’s not always popular with the critics, but I think he has real talent; in this, he manages to be both endearing and ridiculous, and his singing isn’t too bad either.

The overall look of the film is remarkable. The lush, forbidding beauty of the forest is a perfect representation of FairyTale land and Frances De La Tour’s vengeful giant is a visual delight. And yet… there’s too much here to lament, not least the sheer brutal length of the film, a punishing 125 minutes that felt at least forty minutes too long – there were audible sighs of dismay around us as the audience realised that the ‘happy ending’ was by no means the end of the film. Not by a long shot.

And it’s this, I think, that sums up my main problem with it. Sondheim’s aim is to subvert the traditional fairy tale, to show that ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t really exist, that charming princes cheat and stray, that people can be selfish and unkind. It aims to expose the the fairy tales’ dark heart – but in truth, it’s just not dark enough; this is a Disney adaptation, after all, so even in the midst of its subversion, the fridge magnet epithets abound`: you’re never truly alone, even good people make mistakes, blah blah blah. It doesn’t have the guts to really look at what the stories say; there’s not the faintest traces of Angela Carter here.

Oh yeah. And I didn’t like the songs.

2.6 stars

Susan Singfield