“This was just a moment in the woods…”
The final show in this year’s season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is yet another entry into Stephen Sondheim’s anniversary calendar with a production of Into The Woods. And what a well-suited choice as the multi-level set sits in the real trees and bushes around the auditorium, swaying in the wind, leaves beginning to fall and providing the perfect backdrop for the show.
Told by a narrator, here a young boy (Ethan Beer last night), the story mixes together characters from many familiar fairytales all living their stories as we know them, in their various searches for happiness, wealth, fulfilment, all their hearts’ desires and reaches the conclusions we have come to know as the characters secure their happy endings. However, this only takes us to the interval and the second half takes a decidedly darker turn as Sondheim and Lepine investigate what happens after ‘happy ever after’ and the dangers in having your wishes granted.
This is quality casting at its best and it really does show. Just as some actors have a natural affinity for Shakespeare’s language, so too do some actors have an instinctive feel for Sondheim’s oeuvre and here we have two of the finest exponents of Sondheim’s work leading the cast in Jenna Russell and Hannah Waddingham. Russell provides the much needed emotional heart of the show as the Baker’s Wife, so poignantly honest and a sheer delight to watch, even when not singing, she’s a brilliantly reactive actress. And Waddingham effects a remarkable physical transformation from the hunched-over crone to a bewigged beauty, possessed of a stunning vocal clarity and an statuesque elegance.
Amongst the ensemble, Helen Dallimore (to whom I will forever be grateful for Ernie Get Your Gun) as Cinderella and Michael Xavier, doing double duty as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf were both excellent, but Beverly Rudd’s bumptious Little Red Riding Hood was particularly scene-stealingly good, her attempts at skipping at me creased up every time. There’s even a brief vocal cameo from Dame Judi Dench as the Giant which she invests with her customary eloquence. There were a couple of weaker spots too unfortunately, Mark Hadfield’s Baker had serious tuning issues towards the end and Ben Stott as Jack made me feel continually nervous, never really seeming to settle.
Ultimately though, this is a show that moves the head and not really the heart for me, no matter how well performed. It is so clever and so tricksy with its intermingling of these familiar stories and then riffing off on them in unexpected directions, but there’s just so much packed in that scenes are bitty and end up feeling rushed (especially in the second half) but crucially for me, there’s too little emotional engagement. A scene towards the end is heartbreakingly beautiful with a wonderful twist explaining the choice of a young narrator but it has no room to breathe as the jaunty refrain of ‘Into The Woods…’ strikes up yet again breaking the mood even as the tears begin to form in the eyes.
So, much to enjoy here, including some absolutely top-notch performances from both Russell and Waddingham and a near-perfect marriage of material and location which helps considerably to overcome my issues with the show itself. I would recommend taking in an evening show to get the full advantage of the darkening skies which elevate this production into something special and the bank seats are a good way of getting close to the action without having to fork out too much as the seat prices at the Open Air theatre are really not cheap.