Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Into the Woods (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Gillian Bevan as the Witch

The problem with Into the Woods is that it finishes half way through. James Lapine's story is definitely a game of two halves, and it's the second half which really lets down the first. This is a common complaint about Into the Woods, and there seems to have been little attempt by Matthew Xia, the director of this production, to avoid this.

And maybe that's because it's largely unfixable. The ponderous nature of the second half - which fixates on the nature of cause and effect, who's really to blame for the events of the first half, and the grander notion of destiny and responsibility - drags the production to such a halt that the magic of what's gone before is soiled.

But that magic is pure and enchanting. Into the Woods is basically a mash-up of various different fairytales - Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel etc - into one beautifully woven narrative, one with a beginning, a middle and a very definite, triumphant, end. The trouble is, that end comes at the close of Act 1, when you're left wondering to yourself just how the story can continue into the second half.

The truth is, it doesn't. What there is of it splutters its way through an entire hour of unfocused moralising. Fairytales are built upon morals and consequences, and it's an interesting idea for Lapine to make the audience address these issues head-on rather than view them through the prism of folklore. But it's clunkily written, with maudlin songs which go on too long. I swear there was a point about 15 minutes from the end when the entire audience was stifling a yawn and willing the end to come.

Michael Peavoy as the
Prince and Francesca
Zoutewelle as Cinderella
It's such a shame, because Into the Woods is a beautiful production. The characters are well-drawn from our collective childhood memories, but with a modern twist: Cinderella's Ugly Sisters are orange-tanned spoilt brats in prom dresses, Prince Charming has a selfish side to him, and the Witch only has what she believes is the welfare of another at heart. The actors are all splendid, none more so than Gillian Bevan's horticultural harpy the Witch, a triumph of costume, movement and performance. She hobbles, she fires sparks at her enemies, she casts spells, she's thoroughly nasty - but conversely also possesses a good heart, and all of this is expertly captured by Bevan, who gives a star performance.

There are further shining turns from David Moorst, whose simple Jack the giant slayer is the empathetic fulcrum for the audience, and the story; Amy Ellen Richardson is in true heroine mode as the wide-eyed Baker's Wife, giving a performance laced with exuberance and pathos as she stumbles from triumph to disaster in her quest to have the baby of her dreams; and Francesca Zoutewelle, whose post-modern Cinderella is at first more interested in the royal ball itself than the advances of Prince Charming.

Her prince is played with wild charisma by Michael Peavoy, perfectly cast here as the proud and preening royal, and the various sing-offs between he and fellow prince Marc Elliott are a highlight of the production. Both try to outdo each other in their desperation and unhappiness through the medium of musical theatre, and both actors excel at the comedy. It's a pity Elliott isn't given more to do in the play.

Amy Ellen Richardson as the Baker's Wife
Peavoy also plays the Wolf, resplendent in, well... very little! It's a costume which leaves virtually nothing to the imagination as he scampers and prances around the innocent Little Red Ridinghood like an escapee from A Company of Wolves, moving from daft charm to malevolent undercurrents in the snap of a finger. One of the very best scenes in this play is when the Wolf devours Red Ridinghood, and then the Baker tries to rescue her. If you know the fairytale, you'll have an idea of what happens, but I promise you'll be left agog by the way Red Ridinghood's resurrection is achieved. Chris Fisher's magical illusion here will stay with you.

Cameron Blakely is both reassuring as the Narrator and disconcerting as the Mysterious Man, while Alex Gaumond gives a powerful performance as the Baker who is searching for so much, but arguably loses much more. Natasha Cottriall is charming as Red Ridinghood, a real talent to watch, while Isabelle Peters shows off a stunning, operatic voice, but sadly doesn't get much chance to show how good an actor she may be. The trio of the Ugly Sisters and their mother are also colourfully brought to life by Maimuna Memon, Michaela Bennison and Gemma Page, but the characters are largely peripheral, and there purely for comic effect.

Maimuna Memon as Florinda and
Gemma Page as her mother
There are equally as solid turns from Claire Brown in the largely thankless role of Jack's mother, and Amelia Cavallo gets to show off her acrobatic skills as Cinderella's (late) mother. Michael O'Connor's Steward is another incidental character, but one with a very important role in proceedings which provides the catalyst for Act 2, while Rachel Goodwin's operation of Milky White the cow is disarmingly loving and expertly portrayed through both puppetry and facial expression. There's even a theatre-shaking cameo from Maxine Peake as the voice of the Giant.

Jenny Tiramani's set design has plenty of surprises up its sleeve (most of the set is actually outside in the Royal Excange's auditorium, cleverly locating you in the woods when you take to your seat), while Sean Green's eight-piece band rattles through the music and sound effects beautifully. The title song, Into the Woods, is a real earworm, while other highlights in Sondheim's score include the princes' rivalry song Agony, and the rapidly delivered highlight of Act 2, Your Fault.

Wonderful score, beautiful design, charming performances... it's just such a pity the narrative collapses at the halfway point and the magic of the first Act is tainted by the ungainly second. I'd be perfectly happy to have Into the Woods end at 100 minutes in, but perhaps that's asking too little of my modern fairytales. Maybe that searching second burst provides a diverting counterpoint for some, but for me, I'll opt for the happily ever after!

The stats
Writer: Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics); James Lapine (book)
Director: Matthew Xia
Cast: Cameron Blakely (Narrator/ Mysterious Man); Francesca Zoutewelle (Cinderella); David Moorst (Jack); Rachel Goodwin (Milky White/ puppeteer); Alex Gaumond (Baker); Amy Ellen Richardson (Baker's Wife); Gemma Page (Cinderella's stepmother/ Grandmother); Maimuna Memon (Florinda); Michaela Bennison (Lucinda); Claire Brown (Jack's mother); Natasha Cottriall (Little Red Ridinghood); Gillian Bevan (Witch); Marc Elliott (Rapunzel's prince); Amelia Cavallo (Cinderella's mother); Michael Peavoy (Wolf/ Cinderella's prince); Isabelle Peters (Rapunzel); Michael O'Connor (Steward); Maxine Peake (Voice of the Giant); Shreyas Mishra (Child)
Performed at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, December 4th, 2015 to January 16th, 2016. Performance reviewed: December 12th, 2015.

Into the Woods at Royal Exchange website (retrieved Dec 15 2015)
Into the Woods trailer (retrieved Dec 15 2015)

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