Review by Daz Gale
While everyone has been talking about the dream-cast production of Into The Woods that is currently wowing audiences on Broadway, you need more than one simultaneous production for world domination. In fact, you could say it takes two. With that in mind, UK audiences can also get a taste of the Sondheim classic, though admittedly in a very different version. This production has also garnered attention, having been pulled from its planned run at The Old Vic due to comments that had been made from its co-director Terry Gilliam. Having been relocated to the beautiful Theatre Royal in Bath, was it worth the wait or is the production as problematic as its co-director?
Having premiered on Broadway in 1987, Into The Woods made its way to the West End in 1990 and has been revived multiple times on both sides of the Atlantic, including the aforementioned 2022 Broadway sensation. It was also famously adapted into a Disney movie in 2014 featuring an incredible cast… and James Corden. This marks the first time the production will be seen in London since Sondheims death, which guarantees a more emotional viewing. As someone who has only ever seen the movie version and is desperate to catch as many Sondheim shows on stage as I possibly could, there was no way I was missing this production so took myself to Bath for the day just to see if I would love it as much as I expected to.
For those that are not familiar with the story, Into The Woods takes the stories of well loved fairytale characters and completely turns them on their head. Think of it like the Brothers Grimm multiverse of madness with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (of and the Beanstalk fame) teaming up to stop Thanos… I mean the Giant. But this is a show with a twist and their happy ever afters are very short-lived with members of the cast not making it halfway through the wood.
This production has a unique aesthetic in that it is made to resemble a Victorian toy theatre with classic toys making appearances in unusual and unexpected places, to various effect. It is a bold new approach on the show though, and the design from Jon Bausor and Jack Valentine is overall exquisite with a cardboard proscenium opening in various places to reveal surprises an inspired touch. Humorous touches in the set design (especially the beans) and scene transitions create an enthralling watch, even if it does involve laughing at the absurdity of the design choices in certain places. The appearance of the Giant in the second act is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect with some truly fantastic touches to create a sense of magic on that stage, while another highlight is the welcome emergence of a huge clock.
Co-directed by Leah Hausman who also choregraphs, the bold choices overall pay off, though the opening of each act involving a child asking the audience “Are you ready” felt like a misfire to me. Having not seen other productions of this on stage, I had heard Into The Woods had previously felt inconsistent between both acts. That wasn’t a problem for me who found the whole thing cohesive and enjoyable from start to finish thanks to the genius book by James Lapine. Another great detail was the puppet design from Billie Achilleos with a brilliantly expressionate Milky White regularly stealing scenes from her human counterparts and milking her part for all its worth.
With music and lyrics from the legendary Stephen Sondheim, you expect a certain incomparable standard and Into The Woods more than delivers this. Featuring some of his most beautiful work, classics such as ‘I Know Things Now’, ‘Giants In The Sky’ and ‘On The Steps Of The Palace’. Having seen a number of songs from this show performed in both online concerts prior to Sondheims death and in concerts in person since, it was nice to tie them all together for a true celebration of his legacy, while 'No One Is Alone' now hits completely differently given events of the last couple of years, creating a truly moving climax to the show.
A cast of some truly incredible performers have been assembled to take on these iconic roles. Alex Young is fast becoming known as a go to for Sondheim shows, having wowed audiences with her mad turn in Anyone Can Whistle, she gives a fantastic turn as The Baker’s Wife, alongside Rashan Stone as a vulnerable and often understated Baker. Audrey Brisson is an absolute standout as Cinderella, showing no end to her talents as she showcases her beautiful singing voice and perfect comic timing. She’s not the only princess in this story though and Maria Conneely shines as Rapunzel as she descends into madness, while Charlotte Jaconelli and Jamie Birkett make a formidable double act as Florinda and Lucinda, alongside a version of Cinderella’s step-mother Alexandra Waite-Roberts which felt reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Webbers Cinderella… though thankfully slightly better.
Barney Wilkinson continues to raise a little Hell on stages across the UK with a fabulous turn as Jack, convincingly portraying the young kid and displaying strong stage presence, while Lauren Conroy is equally great as Little Red Riding Hood, perfectly cocky and hilarious to boot. Julian Bleach is perfectly creepy as Mysterious Man in a sinister yet captivating turn, doubling as Death throughout the show. Nathanael Campbell and Henry Jenkinson are excellent as the two Princes, bringing a musical highlight with a hilarious rendition of ‘Agony’. The ultimate standout has to be the hugely talented Nicola Hughes as The Witch who gives an exceptional performance throughout, culminating with a spellbinding ‘Last Midnight’, though her transformation into a business womans suit was less satisfying and far more “I’d like to speak to the manager” energy.
It’s worth noting that a lot of these performers have been through a real journey with this show, having had the role confirmed years ago only to have the rug pulled out from under them when the original run was cancelled. Knowing how much these roles meant to them and the ride they have had with it only went to heighten the performers, with the feeling they really were leaving everything on that stage.
It may have taken a long while to get through the woods but delays and venue changes aside, this production of Into The Woods was largely a success and more than worth the wait. Not perfect by a long shot with perhaps a little bit of fine-tuning still needed, the elements it gets right more than makes up for this. A fantastic cast and interesting design choices paired with the original book by James Lapine and Sondheims iconic songs makes this overall a triumph. A production as grand as this seems destined to have a future life beyond its limited run in Bath. Who knows? Perhaps we could soon see it travelling Into The West End.
Into The Woods plays at Theatre Royal Bath until September 10th . Tickets from https://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/
Photos by Marc Brenner