Into the Woods - Donmar 1998

Wednesday, 06 January, 1999

This musical has two directors, John Crowley, who directed "How I Used To Drive" at the Donmar last year, and Jonathan Butterell, who is also the choreographer.

The musical brings together many fairy stories into one, giving us a delightful mixture of tales. The main story concerns a baker and his wife who wish to have a child but cannot. This is because the nasty ugly witch has cast a spell on them. The witch will only lift the spell if the baker and his wife can deliver to her Cinderella's slipper, Red Riding Hood's cape, Rapunzel's golden hair and Jack's white cow. What follows is a delightful and fascinating story, which all ends happily at the interval. It is after the interval that the story becomes very interesting. Does every one really end up happily ever after?

I have to admit to not being one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest fans. In recent years I have not enjoyed 'Company' at the Donmar, 'Passion' at the Queens theatre, and " A Little Night Music" at the Olivier theatre. However, I did find "Into The Woods" enjoyable because for me it contains many fine tunes and lyrics which I found lacking in his other shows (Of course fans will disagree with me!).

The Donmar is a very small theatre, so it always amazes me how they manage to put on musicals with big casts. This production has a cast of 19!! And again it is a credit to the production team that the stage does not look crowded or chaotic. The experienced Bob Crowley has once again used all his skills to design a workable set.

There are some outstanding performances in this production, most notably from the young Sheridan Smith who plays 'Little Red Riding Hood'. I predict this girl has a big future ahead of her. I saw her at the Queens theatre a year ago in 'Bugsy Malone where she was sensational as 'Tallulah'. She is equally superb here with a varied selection of acting skills and facial features, with a solid voice. Frank Middlemass is perfectly cast as the 'narrator' along with Michael N. Harbour as the ' Mysterious Man'. Clare Burt, who I have seen at the Donmar twice before in 'Company' and 'Nine', is brilliant as the wicked 'Witch', particularly when the witch is transformed from being ugly to beautiful. Her sultry behaviour and powerful voice are mesmerising. There are many more professional performances from the likes of Matt Rawle, Sheila Reid, Damian Lewis, Sophie Thompson, and in particularly Nick Holder who plays the baker.

The show received mixed reviews from the popular press. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD, who always seems to give Sondheim good reviews, says, "Into The Woods still emerges as a magical, psychotherapy musical, which makes adult sense of childish fairy tales." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH thought it lacked emotion and was, at times, boring. He said, "Emotional involvement, the lifeblood of all great musicals, is in desperately short supply. Only at the very end, when the bereaved baker tries to comfort his crying child, did I suddenly discover a lump in my throat." DAVID BENEDICT of THE INDEPENDENT says, "A production whose intimacy makes you feel as if you are watching a well-acted play with music rather than being treated to a full-blown musical." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, While John Crowley's production of Sondheim and Lapine's Into The Woods offers civilised pleasure, it is also rather thinly sang. In stressing narrative rather than vocal values, it denies us much in the way of aural ecstasy." LISA MARTLAND of THE STAGE says, It seems unlikely this interpretation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 'Into the Woods' is going to rate highly." The headline in THE TIMES reads, "Bumpy woodland ride".

'Into The Woods' is very good family entertainment with many of your favourite fairytale characters in some strange situations. A must see!!

(Darren Dalglish)

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