If you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise. A flirtatious Red Riding Hood, an alcoholic Rapunzel, street cred Cinderella and other assorted fairytale characters are roaming the woods but this isn’t a Disney saccharine coated tale. As his 80th Birthday celebrations continue, the Open Air Theatre brings Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, his dark re-setting of the Brothers Grimm fairytales, into its spiritual home amongst the trees.
One of the first things that hits you is what a perfect marriage of show and location it is. As dusk turns into dark the Regents Park venue magically transorms into the perfect backdrop for the musical; night descending mirroring the descent into darkness on stage.
Many see Into The Woods as one of Sondheim’s ‘problem’ shows; its length and multi-layered plot often being cited as difficult. It’s also often claimed that the second Act is superfluous and unnecessary. In fact schools often stage Act One as a stand alone show in itself to save children from the darker implications of Act Two
Into The Woods is indeed a show of two half’s separated by a slight but significant shift. Act One see’s a plethora of fairytale characters take to the woods in search of love, wealth, belonging or even a child and for most their hopes and dreams are achieved by the interval.
But at what cost are these dreams achieved? Is ‘happy ever after’ actually achievable, or even desirable? It’s the much darker and more satisfying second act that resolves these difficult questions and lifts this show into the classic category.
Timothy Sheader’s wonderfully observed production starts with a clever but effective twist, we are seeing these well known characters through the eyes of a runaway child hiding in the woods. Soutra Gilmour has created a multi level playground among the trees to allow the characters to roam and it’s a magical effect that the cast take full advantage of.
Sondheim has filled Into The Woods with some of his most enchanting music and lyrics and the top notch cast take full advantage of the material. Much like the gluttonous Red Riding Hood gorging on sweets in the bakers there is much to pick from here; Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas’ foppish Princes, Alice Fearn’s wailing Rapunzel, Beverly Rudds voluptuous blood thirsty Red Riding Hood and Ben Scott’s day dreaming Jack all impressive. Hannah Waddingham and Jenna Russell continue to impress as the West End’s two most exciting leading ladies, both managing to bring a tear to the eye in the rain splashed auditorium. Even Dame Judy Dench can’t resist the lure of Sondheim with a (pre recorded) appearance as the rampaging giant.
As the London celebration of Sondheim’s 80th year continues it will be hard pushed to find a more enchanting setting for one of his most enchanting works. Even a rainy night can’t dampen the shine of this wonderfully dark but also uplifting evening.