Review: Into The Woods

Grown-up fairy tales from genius Sondheim

By John Nathan, August 19, 2010

Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London NW1

Ben Stott as Jack in the bleaker, more complex take on the beanstalk story by Stephen Sondheim

Ben Stott as Jack in the bleaker, more complex take on the beanstalk story by Stephen Sondheim

I saw Stephen Sondheim the other day. In London to celebrate his 80th birthday, the greatest genius of musical theatre - certainly still living and possibly ever - and the man director Trevor Nunn brackets with Shakespeare and Chekhov, was sitting in a pub. Perhaps I should have offered to buy him a birthday drink.

Trashy R&B music hung in the air. In front of him was what looked like a glass of water and there was one of those pub-food menus offering burgers and onion rings. It was a bit like peering through an Oxfam shop window to see the Queen trying on a coat.

There is no reason of course why Sondheim should be above killing a little time occasionally in a dive. One of the reasons this composer's composer and lyricist's lyricist is regarded with such reverence by his peers and public is that he manages to integrate real life into his work, and illuminate the darkest recesses of human nature. This had previously been the job of the play, not the musical. With Sondheim there is no happy ever after. Not even in Into the Woods, an amalgam of fairytales first seen in 1986. Rather, lessons are learned, but only if people live long enough.

In the hands of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, a fairytale ending is just the end of act one. Then Cinderella falls out of love with her Prince; Rapunzel, though rescued from her tower, goes crazy from the incarceration, and Jack's beanstalk brings a giant's murderous revenge to his world. Meanwhile, the Baker's wife has it away with Cinderella's prince - or the other way round - and pity the wolf who meets this Little Red Riding Hood. She ain't so little and she handles a flick-knife like one of the Jets or Sharks in Sondheim's West Side Story.

A shame then - no, not a shame, a betrayal - that the penultimate song in act two panders to a sentiment that is not only untrue, but undermines everything that has gone before. It is called No One Is Alone.

With Sondheim there is no happy ever after

The woods of the title - represented by the Open Air's verdant and sometimes menacingly lit copse - are not just woods, of course. They are a metaphor too - for the fears we have to conquer in life and the barriers we have to overcome while pursuing our dreams. Into this world of shadows and possibility the Baker and his wife are sent by the Witch to lift the curse that will stop them having a child.

As if Sondheim's sweet and deliberately discordant score was not enough of a challenge to the cast, Soutra Gilmour's rickety-looking, three-tier set has steps that are so steep the Baker nearly went down them head over heels. And the swing on which Red Riding Hood swung, snapped, sending her tumbling to the ground. The excellent Beverly Rudd, who plays the role with lashings of streetwise sass, did not even miss a beat.

If anyone doubted the talents of director Timothy Sheader, they would have been set straight by last year's superb revival of Hello Dolly (still a travesty that it could not find its way to the West End). And it was Sheader's excellent direction that prevented the Warsaw ghetto musical, Imagine This (dubbed a Holocaust show by some), from being a car crash of bad taste.

So it is no surprise that this evening delivers moments of lyrical, melodic and comedic ecstasy. The number Your Fault, in which Jack, the Baker (now a widow), the Witch, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood blame each other for the impending apocalypse about to be wrought by the giant, is a triumph of timing and phrasing sung at machine-gun speed.

The two sibling princes (Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas), chivalrous cads both, bound about the stage like rutting springboks, and the best visual moment of all arrives with the appearance of the giant whose huge face, apparently made of spare parts, with umbrellas for eyelids, breaks through the tree tops and speaks with the voice of Judi Dench.

The singing is not all it could be. The women - particularly Sondheim veterans Jenna Russell as the Baker's wife and Hannah Waddingham as the Witch - are generally better than the men.

But inevitably, the real star here, and the one for whom the audience gave their standing ovation, was maestro Sondheim.

(Tel: 0844 826 4242)

Last updated: 11:18am, August 19 2010