Sunday, 5 September 2010

Into the Woods - Open Air Theatre @ Regent's Park, Thursday 2nd September 2010

When a Baker and his wife learn they've been cursed with childlessness by the Witch next door, they embark on a quest for the special objects required to break the spell - a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold- variously swindling, lying to and stealing from Cinderella (attending the Royal Ball wearing the slipper) Little Red Riding Hood (wearing a cape as red as blood), Rapunzel (who has hair as yellow as corn) and Jack (who has exchanged his white cow for a sack of magic beans). By the end of act 1, the spell has been lifted and everyone seems happy - the baker's wife is expecting a child, Cinderella has married her Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Granny have been rescued from the wolf and Jack has killed the giant and solved his mother's financial problems with the aid of a stolen hen which lays golden eggs. Even the witch is now young and beautiful, having been cursed with age and ugliness in return for losing the magic beans from her garden and locking Rapunzel up in a doorless tower - but the consequences of everyone's actions return to haunt them later, with disastrous results.
The baker doesn't cope well with fatherhood, Cinderella discovers that her Prince is a serial womaniser, Rapunzel loses her sanity after being locked up for so long, the Witch has lost her magical powers, Red Riding Hood has lost her childish innocence and trust of strangers and the Giant's wife comes to take her revenge on Jack. The narrator of the story becomes embroiled in the plot itself as it shakes free from convention and starts to spiral wildly out of his control. Lives are lost before the survivors realize that they have to act together in order to overcome the problems they created by wishing. In fact, it becomes obvious that "Happy Ever After" isn't where the story ends, but only where the problems really start.
Narrator: Ethan Beer/Eddie Manning/Joshua Swinney

Cinderella: Helen Dallimore
Jack: Ben Stott
Baker: Mark Hadfield
Baker’s wife: Jenna Russell
Stepmother: Gaye Brown
Stepsisters: Amy Richardson and Amy Griffiths
Jack’s mother: Marilyn Cutts
Little Red Riding Hood: Beverley Rudd
Witch: Hannah Waddington
Mysterious Man: Billy Boyle
Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Michael Xavier
Rapunzel: Alice Fearn
Rapunzel’s Prince: Simon Thomas
Voice of the Giantess: Judi Dench

Creative Team:
Book: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Timothy Sheader
Movement: Liam Steel
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Puppet Designer: Rachael Canning

You can hide in the woods, certainly. But you can’t hide in Into the Woods – this is very much an ensemble piece and shortcomings can be brutally exposed. Just like the ingredients bubbling away in a cauldron, occasionally something appears which brings delight, sometimes its wiser not to look too closely. Some of the performances here are very bad, some others are merely badly served by the production. And overall, I would say that the darker aspects of the show are those which lose out – perhaps literally because this isn’t a show best seen by bright daylight. The bosky darkness of the Open Air Theatre by night may well bring added depth – but hey, we could only get tickets for a matinee.

The set is fantastic – a maze of walkways, stairs and ladders, punctuated by trees. Its used inventively to suggest the disorientation of being alone in the woods, yet by its very nature this makes it very hard to zoom in on individuals or small groups when there are other things happening elsewhere. And far too much takes place in the space underneath the structure, where only those in the really expensive seats at the front can see clearly. But when its good, its really really good – a group of characters standing on a spiral staircase and opening green umbrellas becomes a beanstalk both credible and incredible, a saddle on the seat of a swing makes a horse (just add imagination) and a huge birds nest perched on top does double duty as Rapunzel’s tower and the baker’s hideout for the finale. And elsewhere there are wonderful visual jokes to enjoy – never before have I seen the Three Little Pigs appear in Into the Woods, but their presence carrying straw, sticks and a hod full of bricks is funny and welcome and feels entirely natural, as does that of birds made of branches, a puppet cow a la War Horse and a chicken (one that lays golden eggs) made out of a push-along lawnmower. It’s a shame that the costumes didn’t match up – there was far too much of the “Swampy” eco-warrior look for my liking. Where Cinderella’s sisters should don silks and satins to go to the ball, here they just go in the tweed knickerbockers outfits they’ve worn all along. Rapunzel’s Prince was wearing a boring suit that looked like it had been donated by one of his peasants. Again, on the flip side, some costumes were wonderful – the Witch was decked out in shiny “mould green”, the skirt of which had been pleated at the back to fall into cobweb shapes.

One thing that was disappointing throughout was the lack of singing talent; everyone seemed to be a singing actor, rather than an acting singer – apart from Cinderella, who could neither sing nor act. She wowed everyone with her creation of the role of Glinda in the original production of Wicked, but there was nothing of her sparkle on show this afternoon The Mysterious Man’s “phoned-in” performance was mirrored by Beverley Rudd’s practically faultless Little Red Riding Hood, who lit up and practically walked away with every scene she was in. Congratulations to the casting director for picking up on the clues in the next about LRRH’s physical appearance and engaging Rudd for the part. Those in the “chorus” parts (people like the Wolf and Steward, who otherwise have very little to do) were kept busy and useful on stage and there was excellent group choreography, although generally the “chorus” were on the opposite side of the set from the principals and it was nearly impossible to pay attention to both at the same time.

What shocked me to my theatre-going core was the dreadful “performance” by Judi Dench, who voiced the Giant’s wife (fantastic enormous “puppet” – just hands, eyes and mouth made of bits of “junk” – which “peered over the trees”). I know that the role consists of less than 20 lines, but really Judi, I do think you could have put a lot more than your very bland reading of them. Even if you are a “Giantess” of the Stage. Tsk, its enough to put you completely off your Capri-Sun.



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