It’s been quite a week for the Whingers.
No sooner was Phil back from a four day Tuscan jolly than Andrew went off on one (so no change there then). Andrew is deeply jealous that Phil found himself sharing an eight hour delay with a delightfully animated Sinead (Mrs Jeremy Irons and former girlfriend of George Best) Cusack – but that story is as long as the delay. Let’s just say: straw hat, queuing together at the information desk and shared mints. Ms Cusak surprised Phil by turning right as she boarded the plane, Phil of course (in a triumph of optimism over experience) turned left and had it not been for a locked cockpit would have found himself on the captain’s lap.
So Andrew’s hoping that he may find himself checking in with Bonnie Langford.
But colliding on terra firma for barely 24 hours they of course managed to fit in a little theatre sortie to see Sondheim’s acclaimed Into the Woods at the Royal Opera House.
Following reports of recent flooding and a cancelled performance at the Linbury studio Andrew was taking no chances and turned up in Wellington boots styled of course after the pair Shirley Bassey wore at Glastonbury this year.
But the show you ask? Ah yes the show.
Both Whingers had seen previous productions of Into the Woods and knew what to expect. A selection of children’s fairy tales re-worked and intricately interwoven with themes about parental relationships, responsibility and wish fulfilment. Cinderella wants to go to a festival, Rapunzel’s stuck in her tower, Little Red Riding Hood is off to see her granny, Jack and his mother need money and the Baker and his wife are in desperate need of a child. By the interval it all ends happily ever after, but just in case you think that’s it and are thinking of heading for a nearby bar or the bus home (a carriage in the Whinger’s case) the narrator (Gary Waldhorn) warns you ominously that it’s “To be continued”.
And here’s lies the predicament. In the darker second act things go horribly wrong.
One of the many problems with ITW is that the end of Act One it feels quite satisfyingly like the end of the show – everything tied up and done with. Then you get a second act which feels like Sondheim’s playing another 60 minutes of extra time determined to get another goal in when he’s already one goal up (this is a football metaphor apparently). Sunday in the Park with George suffers from the same thing. And it’s not just the story, the production goes horribly wrong too.
The complications of the piece mean that there’s an awful lot of characters rushing on and off the stage, when they’re not rushing into the woods they’re rushing into the wings. It’s all terribly untidy. Waldhorn’s somnambulant narrator should provide some kind of cohesion to the messy structure but, like Andrew, he looked like he’d rather be somewhere else.
The premise of the disappointment of fulfilled wishes is laudable, though the Whingers rarely see their wishes fulfilled (cheaper tickets, cheaper bar prices, shorter plays etc). One of the Whingers’ wishes that it could all be over in a lot less than the 3 hours of Will Tuckett’s production, is alas not realised.
In the early stages some of the singing seemed underpowered, indistinct and as lost as Andrew appeared to be on each occasion that he awoke. Overall, Sondheim’s sometimes brilliant lyrics survive, but only just.
On the plus side Suzanne Toase as Little Red Riding Hood is excellent. At times she’s hilarious and the Whingers will be watching her very closely in the future. Ms Toase you have been warned. Phil also loved Anna Francolini as the Baker’s Wife and Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Cinderella.
But Sondheim-wise it was all a step backward for Andrew who has only occasionally been persuaded of Sondheim’s merits over the past few years. Apart from one jaunty number (“Into the Woods”) and one comic number (“Agony”), he found the rest of it irredeemably dreary.
Andrew loved the the set – mirrors on the ceiling and walls reminded him of his younger days earning a crust when he first arrived in London. Phil wasn’t keen at all as Lez Brotherston is one of his least favourite designers (or perhaps it’s just the ‘Z’ he objects to).
The highlight for Phil was Cinderella’s Prince’s seduction of the Baker’s Wife and her post coital song (“Moments in the Woods”). Phil found himself clapping enthusiastically for the first time, Andrew suddenly awoke from his snooze wondering what he’d missed.
Wiping dribble from his mouth, Andrew remained conscious until the end and was glad he did as the Whingers’ highlight was yet to come: the harshest curtain call they’d ever witnessed. The cast line up at the front of the stage and are applauded individually, from left to right, which meant that the applause rose dramatically or fell depending on the individual performance. Pity the performer who came after Little Red Riding Hood. It was all so non-egalitarian the Whingers wished they’d thought of it.
- This was the Whingers first visit to the Linbury Studio Theatre and they found that descending into the stalls something of a trek. Prison style walkways weave backwards and forwards on themselves creating a log jam of audience from the different theatre levels and reminded Phil far too much of his days slopping out.
- The Whingers were told that they didn’t have to leave their bags in the main Opera House cloakroom as there was one in the Linbury. On descending into the Linbury they found this was actually a series of chains for coats and a sign saying “property left at the owners own risk”. Phil made Andrew climb back up to the main cloakroom. Andrew has decided to throw away his Stairmaster and attend the Linbury every night.
- The programme, which contained not only biographies of cast and creatives but also colour production photographs, cost a mere £2. Andrew, scarcely able to contain himself, bought two, took them home, bound then in a gold embossed cover and pretended he’d had a night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
- The Whingers raised their glasses to the imperious barman, who, with all the charm of a Mumbai call centre, seemed to take delight (if indeed he takes pleasure in anything) in telling them that drinks couldn’t be taken into the auditorium. Their wine was then placed in the most inaccessible place in the bar. Despite a 25 minute interval, the difficulties of getting to and from their seats left them little time to finish their drinks and they are no slouches when it comes to speed drinking.
Wonderful Liz Smith, looking very elegant, gamely standing at the back of the stalls for the full 3 hours. If the Whingers knew the meaning of the word shame Phil would have woken Andrew from his reverie and made him offer her a seat.
Andrew, who claims not to watch telly, was terribly excited to see Doreen Mantle (Mrs Warboys from One Foot in the Grave). Phil heard her remark that she’d enjoyed herself so much she wanted to come back the following night. The Whingers didn’t have the heart to tell her that they wouldn’t be attending. Yes, fulfilled wishes can be so disappointing.