There are some marriages made in heaven. Not that of the Whingers, of course. Their uneasy, warped version of wedlock is one parboiled over the flames of hell, yet still half-baked.
But whoever came up with the idea of staging Into the Woods in the gloriously seemly setting that is the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre should be appropriately ennobled. The biggest question is: why has it taken them so long?
With memories of previous years’ Hello Dolly! and Gigi still transforming the Whingers’ usual grimacing countenances into beaming smiles (despite the downpours of rain encountered on both occasions) expectations were raised to an unreasonably imprudent level.
But hoorah! For the first time ever at the RPOAT, Phil’s plastic poncho remained in his man-bag unaired – the weather was temperate. Plus, the Whingers had hustled tickets for the Press Night in an exciting scene reminiscent of that film where Paul Newman hustles people over a pool table except there was no pool table and neither Whinger remotely resembles Paul Newman although Phil once spilt a bottle of his salad dressing and swears that it formed an uncanny image of Andrew if you squinted at it right.
Anyway. Press Night. So there was hospitality to take full advantage of and a First Night party to crash. It seemed as though all the twinkling stars were in full alignment. And so it proved: Biggins was there!
Stephen Sondheim‘s interweaving of popular fairy tales – Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella et al – is a tricky one. The Whingers always feel it could end at the interval with it’s “happy ever after” conclusion but of course Sondheim and James Lapine (book) have more sophisticated ideas than our extremely restricted collective imaginations and as daylight disappears the show gets literally and psychologically darker. You really shouldn’t see this show at a matinée. The setting at night is appropriately magical.
Soutra Gilmour‘s vast set of walkways among the trees appears as rickety as it is impressive. Rapunzel sits in a giant bird’s nest on its – count them – fourth level. Money has clearly been splurged. But despite the scale of the performing area it rarely slows things down: the convoluted story does that for itself. Phil had another of his “fretting for the cast” evenings. as they are frequently very high up and running on and off in crepuscular gloom. It can’t be easy. Are they all being fed carrots in their dressing rooms?
Timothy Sheader‘s production is full of wonderful touches: a runaway child plays the narrator with a rucksack of toys (too small to be sufficiently visible in the space), Jack’s beanstalk and the Grandmother/Wolf’s bed are wittily realised and the Giant (Judi Dench voicing) is cleverly and spectacularly achieved.
Hannah Waddingham‘s Witch is back-breakingly stooped, hobbling around on gnarled crutches: she could be a refugee from Lord of the Rings the Musical! but, uniquely, here we mean that as a compliment. And even better, at the end of Act 1 she physically transforms into Fennella Fielding (Yes, really! That’s meant as a compliment too).
And what a cast. Billy Boyle (Basil Brush’s Mr Billy, 1979-80) as Mysterious Man, Helen Dallimore (she of Too Close To The Sun although sadly she apparently hasn’t had time to update her biography) gives her Cinderella, Gaye Browne is her step-mother, the ever-reliable Mark Hadfield plays the Baker, Marilyn Cutts (a Fascinating Aida alumnus) is Jack’s mother and Jenna Russell makes very touching Baker’s Wife (and occasionally sounds like Janine Duvitski which is an unexpected bonus).
All get their moments in the woods but Simon Thomas and Michael Xavier as Rapunzel and Cinderella’s Russell Brand-ed Princes respectively stand out with their well-sung and humorous delivery of “Agony”.
And when has a production of ITW not been stolen by Little Red Riding Hood? Beverly Rudd (right) was caught red-caped and red-handed, perkily embezzling the show, capturing an indecent share of the laughs with every hilarious appearance – her inability even to skip was a hoot. And what a trouper! When a swing collapsed dangerously under her mid-song she carried on without missing a note – the Whingers’ awe had never been so struck.
After the interval Into The Woods is prone, like ourselves, to ramble on and outstay its welcome. That’s mostly the fault of the piece rather this production (although some people seem to feel the opposite way about the second act’s run of gloomy pedestrian numbers). So when they’re next pollarding those trees the same tools might be gainfully employed to hack away at Act 2.
There are other problems too: the scale of the set and the abundance of nature sometimes swallows up the action; Designer Soutra Gilmour might find she can make a more lucrative living producing jungle camouflage outfits for the MOD – she clearly has a gift for it; the use of a child as the narrator only works up to a point – it’s one thing to kill a narrator, quite another to kill a child (we’re told).
But these problems are all forgotten in the light of the treats: (a) probably the best giant ever and (b) the Whingers gasped in amazement when the witch scampered up Rapunzel’s hair.
These things are so good that it’s a shame the show couldn’t transfer and take this Sylvan format with it. But then again, it’s probably best to keep it special. Sheader should be horse-whipped into reviving it once a year. Enchanting.