REVIEW – Into The Woods – Stoke Rep 2012

Into the Woods – Review

1st June 2012 at Stoke Repertory Theatre, by Reveal Theatre (Productions) Ltd.

Director – Robert Marsden
Designer – Amy Carroll
Musical Director – Peter Golding

***

‘When first I appear, I seem mysterious. But when explained, I am nothing serious’ says Bill Robertson as the Mysterious Man, almost paraphrasing the entire musical – initially inaccessible and dark before pulling you down the path from which you must not stray and taking you deep into the woods with this strong production directed by Robert Marsden

Collaborating with book writer James Lapine for a third time, Stephen Sondheim takes the risk of stamping his trademark blend of cerebral lyrics and intricate music onto beloved and well known fairy tales, turning the familiar on its head.

Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and her Step-Mother with Evil Sisters in toe, Jack and his Beanstalk, a Giant – voiced in this production by Home and Away’s Lynne McGrainger – all get lost together with a Witch, a Baker and his Wife and two very pompous Princes. There’s a baby that is desperately wanted from a cursed family, beans exchanged for cows (Amy Carroll’s brilliant puppet of Milky White is a highlight carried by the sullen Jo Foy who later doubles as the knife-weilding Granny) and a list of ingredients to get that promises to undo the curse.

There is a lot to absorb and understand within the first song of this musical and this has, in past productions, proved troublesome as the plot and its characters run through Carroll’s revolving passerelle of dense trees and woods often bumping into each other with characters exchanging storylines, ‘I am in the wrong story’ exclaimed Catherine O’Reilly’s hilarious yet emotionally strong Bakers Wife.

Reveal Theatre Company presents its audience at the Stoke Repertory Theatre with the unique experience of blending professional, seasoned actors with bright new talent from graduating students of Staffordshire University. Holding their own on stage, it was often hard to see any difference between them. Katy Mitchell was joyous as Red Riding Hood, her well-blended voice tackling the songs with ease. Sam O’Rourke’s Prince was masterful and confident providing the other half to Adam Smiths equally self-assured Prince in the productions highlight of ‘Agony’. Like a page out of the Monty Python ‘How-To’ the young actors drew you in and the audience paid them in laugh-out-loud reactions. O’Rourke also played the macabre, deliciously lascivious Wolf. Decked out in spray-on tight velvet trousers and leather jacket, O’Rourke relished in the first real moment of the production that causes the audience to adjust themselves awkwardly in their seats; something bad is definitely coming. All proving that this young actor deserves his place at Arts Educational School in September.

Baker Paul Deakin brought a gravitas and strong voice to the production while consummate professional Ann Micklethwaite was sublime as Jack’s Mother her voice proving to be the strongest on stage full of experience and emotion. The notable performance of the evening came from Sam Turner, whose smooth voice and boyish charm was partnered perfectly with Micklethwaite. This Mother/Son team provided a real believability factor to the intertwining plots.

Beautiful, clean singing voices shone from Kate Blakeley and Ashley Andrew – Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively – and comedy highlights from Natasha Trinder, Bella Barlow and Hayley Coates as Step Mother and Sisters. Adorned in vulgar garish corsets and bloomers, these two ‘Ugly’ sisters were a visual highlight in Carroll’s dark and gothic design.

Victoria Gotham’s performance in Act One as the tortured Witch was haunting if somewhat wanting in the dark, fearsome elements of the character. But her rendition of ‘Children Will Listen’, arguably one of the only songs in the production to take and develop a theme it into a memorable chorus, was strong.

Marsden has skilfully handled this heady mix of actors and plot well, tying his concept together with a venerable Narrator in Ray Johnson telling the story to children Matthew Clarkson, Roshean Owen and Nakitia Lawrence on a camping trip. Special mention must go to these children who stayed on stage for virtually the whole production weaving in and out of the action but never pulling focus.

As a musician, I cannot review a musical without mentioning its Musical Director Peter Golding. Watching Peter play, conduct live musicians and cue singers was a master class. Without doubt the best moments in this production were the ensemble singing at the end of Act One and Two, Golding holding the moment together with the cast – and the audience – in the palm of his hand.

This production definitely needs a longer run to allow the cast to settle (if that’s at all possible, thank you Mr. Sondheim) as sometimes the dialogue got lost through trying to keep up with the complicated underscoring, not helped by some sound issues. However I feel this limited run has shown us what Reveal can do with one of Sondheim’s most difficult works and I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

I was genuinely impressed with this production and only wish it had had a longer run.

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