Once upon a time … the magic phrase which often introduces fairy tales. It's no surprise that it is used as part of the opening line in this Tony award-winning musical from 1986 because it is based on several of the best-known fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.
There can't be a better venue to see Stephen Sondheim's 'Into The Woods'. Since the Open Air Theatre's stage is surrounded by enormous trees with dense foliage, it really brings the setting to life in a most vivid and realistic way even without the addition of a set. But designer Soutra Gilmour has gone further to establish a multi-layered environment incorporating various walkways that span the entire width of the stage. Numerous, steep staircases provide entrances and exits, and perched dizzyingly high above the stage level is a nest where Rapunzel resides with her voluminous hair. It's a complex and impressive set constructed in steel, yet which blends into the theatre's natural backdrop without overpowering it.
The four fairy tales – gathered by the famous Brothers Grimm - are interwoven in James Lapine's book. A witch requires 4 items that a baker and his wife must collect in order to get their wish of having a child. So they set off into the woods and encounter Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Jack and his 'milky white' cow (from Jack and The Beanstalk), Cinderella and Prince Charming. The first half of the show sees everyone's wish coming true, and the second act shows the aftermath. However, that leaves us with a very long first half of over 90 minutes and a second half that tends to get bogged down with the characters being pursued by a giant, whose voice is supplied by Dame Judi Dench, no less.
What matters most in any musical is the quality of the songs and the lyrics. In 'Into the Woods' both are written by Stephen Sondheim, and the results are quite simply stunning. Sondheim's music has a hauntingly seductive quality and there's an underlying, almost tongue-in-cheek humour embedded in the lyrics. This combination is really quite wonderful and just can't fail to captivate.
'Into The Woods' is narrated here by a child – a boy who has run away from his home and is camping out in the woods. As always when child actors are involved, three young actors take turns in assuming the role, Eddie Manning taking on the job on this occasion. And what an exceptional job this young actor did. What struck me most was the incredible confidence that he showed both in delivering the considerable quantity of lines he has to remember and in running up and down the steep staircases in half-light. Hugely impressive stuff from one so young.
Among the adult actors, Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas provide considerable mirth as two 'Hooray Henry' princes who quite literally bounce on and off the stage. They also deliver a terrific duet together in the song 'Agony'. Beverly Rudd is also very funny as a Little Red Riding Hood with a penchant for confectionery; Ben Stott is the naive Jack who in spite of being duped into selling his beloved 'milky white' cow for 5 beans, nonetheless manages to steal the hen that lays golden eggs; and Hannah Waddingham makes a very fine witch who copes deftly with her costume requirements in the first act and has a delightfully engaging singing voice.
Artistic director Timothy Sheader, and co-director Liam Steel can be justly proud of their achievements with 'Into The Woods'. It's a complex piece to direct anyway, but they set themselves additional demands by introducing a complex set. But it all works incredibly well thanks to the additional support of delicate lighting, and a fine orchestra under the direction of Gareth Valentine. All-in-all, it's a splendidly fitting finale to a highly creative and successful season at the Open Air Theatre. I for one am already looking forward to next season.
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Sharp, spirited revival."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Timothy Sheader’s interpretation, while stylish and good-looking, suffers from a mixture of stridency, undercooked comedy and patchy singing...This is a show that oscillates between excellence and mediocrity."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"An inventive, witty production."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times
"At three hours this often repetitive show would also benefit from cuts...For all its faults, the strength of the company, Sheader’s witty direction and, above all, the spectacularly-lit woodland location, ensure that this fairy-tale musical casts a pretty potent spell."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The most satisfying and revelatory version of this show I’ve seen since Richard Jones’ brilliant London staging in 1990."
mark Shenton for The Stage