Review: Into the Woods ★★★ – Sondheim’s dark meta fairy tale gets a bewitching update

I tried explaining Sondheim’s complex morality fable to my five-year-old granddaughter. “You might find it scary,” I said. “It weaves together the stories of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk with a new story about a baker and his wife. The pair long for a baby, but after the outcome you expect, some unexpected scary stuff starts to happen.”

“Lots of fairy tales are scary anyway, Nana,” she retorted. She has a point. Sondheim’s unravelling and his moral – “be careful what you wish for” – are a timely warning. Book is by James Lapine and director Tim McArthur gives it a 21st-century reality TV check, a fresh new spin that really works.

McArthur is also responsible for the exuberantly simple, inclusive musical staging of this ensemble production on Joanna Dias’s cleverly wood-themed, in-the-round set. Ladders rise from wooden pallets planted in wood shavings, with Rapunzel’s wooden scaffolding tower to one side.

Aloft sits musical director Aaron Clingham on keyboards, disappointingly hidden from much of the audience, realising Sondheim’s complex dissonances with a tight band, plangently blending woodwind and strings.

McArthur also makes a sturdy Baker, well matched by Jo Wickham’s warm, down-to-earth Baker’s Wife, perhaps the most sympathetic of Sondheim’s characters.

Abigail Carter-Simpson’s posh girl Cinderella contrasts nicely with her nasty step-family. Mary Lincoln’s stepmother, and Macy Cherrett and Francesca Pym as stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda, are stereotypical Essex girls. They strut their stuff with gleeful panache in a blinding range of skimpy outfits (costume design from Stewart Charlesworth).

Jamie O’Donnell’s fresh-faced Jack is so naive you could slap him. Madeleine MacMahon as his mother is the night’s biggest revelation. In a part normally at best supporting, she stands out. Not just because of her fine voice and comic timing, but because McArthur’s clever update reimagines her younger than usual. She’s a sluttish, streetwise Scots sot; fag in mouth, thong riding up over her tracky bottoms.

Florence Odumosu’s bolshie, bouncy Red Riding Hood, complete with ear-cans, is by turns spiky and cuddly. Her rapacious wolf, Ashley Daniels, doubles as Cinderella’s prince. Add Michael Duke as Rapunzel’s prince and you get a fine pair of effete, posturing princes, nattily clad in figure-hugging gear (Daniels’ three-piece with shorts is especially arresting).

Christina Thornton gives good ghost as Cinder’s mother and morphs into Red’s Granny and the Giant, whose son Jack slays, inadvertently triggering the bleak reality check that follows the briefest of fairy-tale endings.

Jordan Todd’s winning Narrator makes a friendly guide. Jonathan Wadey’s wild Mysterious Man and David Pendlebury’s unctuous, officious Steward make their mark too.

Brooding over them all, Michele Morgan’s dark Witch is especially effective in the longer, more satisfying first half: bitter and disappointed, a selfish and possessive ‘mother’ to Louise Olley’s sweet-voiced Rapunzel. She looks stunning when her spell to regain youth works, and it is Sondheim who writes in the loss of magic that makes her ineffectual.

Rapunzel’s story is a fable for our times, when abuse by control and confinement is recognised, and Olley is genuinely tragic in her bitterness in the second half. Sondheim writes in lots of revelatory pay offs, making it hard to negotiate and the production loses some impact towards the end. Nevertheless, it’s a fresh, eye-opening look at a Sondheim classic that resonates for now.

By Judi Herman

Photos by David Ovenden

Into the Woods runs until Sunday 24 June. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3.30pm (Sun only). From £24, £20 concs. The Cockpit, NW8 8EH. 020 7258 2925. www.thecockpit.org.uk

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