Words by Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 10 September
Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, two princes, a wolf… and a witch. Stephen Sondheim, legendary director, writer and librettist James Lapine… and the Brothers Grimm. Magic, wit, beauty, nostalgia, remorse, joy, death, absurdity, playfulness, devilry and sheer, exuberant joy. Allegories and parables, fables and folklore; myth versus legend… phew!
Welcome to the latest revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical extravaganza Into The Woods, co-directed this time around by iconic stage and film director Terry Gilliam, in partnership with acclaimed choreographer/movement director Leah Hausman. It’s Gilliam’s first foray into the world of musical theatre – and I have no doubt that the late, great Mr Sondheim would love what he and Hausman have done with his complex, multi-faceted take on the time-honoured fairytale genre.
This meticulously-produced spectacle – a collaboration between Scenario Two and Theatre Royal Bath – feels like the show our very own ‘West End’ theatre has been waiting for since it decamped from its original Orchard Street location in 1805 to a brand new, suitably grand environment that rivalled the best London had to offer. The plush auditorium, intricate trompe-l’œil ceiling and glittering chandelier that come as standard when we visit TRB today could almost be part of the elaborate Into The Woods set; indeed, the four see-and-be-seen boxes at either side of the stage have been incorporated into the design, and the safety curtain dressed to recreate a huge version of the Victorian ‘penny plain’ toy theatre – a theatre within a theatre, if you like – with a tiny dolls house centre stage. And from the starting point of a young girl playing with that dolls house, our voyage into the woods begins…
A brazenly live, exuberant, enchanting love letter to the theatre
As we’ve already established, the physical scale of this production is breathtaking – but the devil is in the detail here (even though he may or may not be on the cast list). As we follow a trail down and through the rabbit holes of Sondheim/Lapine’s vivid imaginations, we shift from the familiar to the fearful, the ancient to the modern as we go. One moment we’re giggling along with two very camp princes, the next we’re being secretly thrilled by the Wolf’s sinister seduction techniques before pondering what Rapunzel does with all that hair when she goes to the loo. By the time the interval comes around, we’re kinda left wondering what more we need to know about our now-familiar fanciful friends; after all, the Witch has lifted her spell so the Baker and his wife have finally had their baby, Red Ridinghood has proved her Girl Power, Cinderella has nabbed her prince, Jack has made the giant look small – and even his beloved cow/best friend Milky White is fluttering her eyelashes again. But beyond the multiple layers of lighthearted escapism there are, if you’ve been watching closely, far more sombre themes to explored; post-interval, metaphors around actions and consequences, the impact of wish fulfilment, the true meaning of moral responsibility, and one of the biggest entrances you’ve ever seen on the TRB stage are poised to pull us in all manner of murky directions before we reach the denouement.
Heroes, heroines, stand-out superstars? Take a dart, throw it at the programme, and whichever name you land on in whatever department – from centre-stage to backstage, from the orchestra pit to the special effects designers, wig-powderers and puppeteers – this is their moment. On-stage, there’s the witch with the voice of Shirley Bassey (Nicola Hughes); the two high-society sisters rockin’ their own little Rocky Horror Picture Show/Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd vibe (Jamie Birkett and Charlotte Jaconelli); the uber-camp, ditzy princes (Henry Jenkinson and Nathanael Campbell); the Dickensian dandy/grim reaping Mysterious Man (Julian Bleach); the cow who milks us all for a sweet, innocent, good old-fashioned response to anthropomorphic sentimentality (Faith Prendergast)… and the huge, overspilling tin of Heinz baked beans. Oh, there’s simply too much good stuff going on here, and all of it, all of the time, works in perfect harmony with Sondheim’s twisty, turny, up there, down here, ethereally beautiful words and music. So, is Sondheim the star of the show? Ah, go on then.
Into The Woods is unique. It’s refreshingly, emphatically not sickly-sweet Disney, or production-line goth-genre Netflix, or lazy, predictable Alice In Wonderland franchise. It nods to tradition while enthusiastically embracing modernity. It acknowledges all the itchy, down’n’dirty frailties of the human condition while celebrating love, hope and humanity. It’s a brazenly live, exuberant, enchanting love letter to the theatre… and to our very own Theatre Royal Bath.