“Let the moment go, don’t forget it for a moment though”
As with Shakespeare, plenty of people have strong ideas about how Sondheim ‘should’ be done, so I’m always interested to see a director striking out a little to establish their own vision. Inspiration often comes from the local surroundings – memorably so with Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre a few years back and intriguingly so with Matthew Xia’s production of the same show for the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Taking Sondheim and James Lapine’s conflation of well-known fairytales and their unseen epilogues and relocating it to a contemporary here and now, this enchanted forest may have lost a little of the overtly magical but gains plenty in an evocation of Mancunian community spirit.
It may not have been the most precisely sung version of the show I’ve ever seen but the depth of performance here with all its colour and heart more than made up for it, rooting these characters perfectly in Xia’s landscape. ‘Agony’ has indeed been camper but Marc Elliott and Michael Peavoy’s modern-day Princes make you listen to the intricacy of the lyrical references like never before, Gillian Bevan’s Witch – a woman truly released from her curse – grows in impressive vocal stature throughout the show, and Natasha Cottriall (who in the interests of full disclosure, is my mother’s cousin’s wife’s sister’s daughter) brings real pathos as well as petulance to her Little Red Riding-hood.
And at the heart of the show, there’s a beautiful account of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife from Alex Gaumond and Amy Ellen Richardson. Always the most normal of the characters with their struggles in the show, this pair heighten their everyman quality to hugely affecting effect – Gaumond’s schlub battling to come into his duties as husband and father and Richardson, as his harried partner, revelling delightfully in the attentions of a randy prince (and in those breeches, who wouldn’t?!). Rounding out the leading players, David Moorst caps off a brilliant year with a dopily charismatic take on Jack, a born comedian in his interactions with Rachel Goodwin’s Milky White puppet and strong of voice too.
Even with the fantastical dialled down, Xia doesn’t skimp on the theatrical with Amelia Cavallo’s acrobatic Cinderella’s mother and some neat work from illusionist Chris Fisher to capture the imagination, Maxine Peake’s voice booming through the theatre as the Giant and Jason Pennycooke’s movement complementing the bold sound of Sean Green’s excellent musical direction. Jenny Tiramani’s design might perhaps have done a little more to transform this in-the-round space but there’s no denying the cumulative power of the communal spirit of cast and creative here, and if you can remain dry-eyed during the emotive quartet ‘No One is Alone’ into the rousing reunion of the finale, there’s clearly something Grimm about you.