Into the Woods @ Open Air Theatre, London

Cast List:
Ethan Beer, Eddie Manning, Joshua Swinney, Helen Dallimore, Ben Stott, Mark Hadfield, Jenna Russell, Gaye Brown, Amy Ellen Richardson, Amy Griffiths, Marilyn Cutts, Beverly Rudd, Hannah Waddingham, Gemma Wardle, Billy Boyle, Michael Xavier, Valda Aviks, Alice Fearn, Simon Thomas, Mark Goldthorp, Sophie Caton, Marc Antolin, Judi Dench

Directed by
Timothy Sheader

When Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in 1987 The New York Times described it as the first Sondheim musical whose dark thematic underside is as accessible as its jolly storytelling surface.

And in Regents Park’s Open Air Theatre the show has arguably found its perfect setting. With the performance area practically standing in woodland, the stage is filled with scaffolding, staircases and walkways that rise to the sky and glisten against the trees in the moonlight.

In the process, the set encapsulates all of the beauty, mystery, fear and uncertainty associated with going into the woods, which is something that all of the characters do.
The show rolls a host of fairytales into one plot so that characters such as Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and the Three Little Pigs pop up everywhere. It is not, however, simply light-hearted frivolity, with the piece demonstrating many adult values. The childless Baker and his Wife are prepared to steal or do anything in order to have a baby, arguing that the ends justify the means. The Witch demonstrates traditional maternal attitudes in not wishing to see Rapunzel grow up, while Little Red Ridinghoods encounter with the Wolf is shown in the context of a sexual awakening.

There are further dimensions as well. The show reveals how children can also be cruel, with the entire story being told by a small boy manipulating his toys. We similarly feel that the punishments the Witch and Ugly Sisters receive are disproportionate to the magnitude of their crimes.

In this superbly paced production, several performers who are no strangers to the works of Sondheim stand out. There is a keen sensitivity about Jenna Russells performance as the Bakers Wife as she sings sweetly and wrestles with her conscience over how far she is prepared to swindle others in order to achieve her goal. Hannah Waddingham is tremendous as the Witch, bent double as she sings of curses and beans, while Michael Xavier is a sensuous Wolf as well as a dashing Prince.

Of course, at a production in the open air almost anything can happen, and the night I went the show was rained off early in the second half, meaning that I never got to hear Dame Judi Dench booming away as the voice of the Giant.

But do not let the risk of inclement weather put you off going. On my night everyone was offered a free ticket for another performance and, although the first act is fairly lengthy, a return trip remains a prospect to be relished.

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