All Star Productions first performed their version of Into the Woods at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre in 2014, and have now brought it back for a limited run at The Cockpit. With music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the show has been given a 21st century twist; modern-day Britain infiltrates the forest, including the influence of TOWIE and recent royal weddings.
The Baker and his wife want nothing more than to have a child, but a curse has been put on his family that prevents this from happening; in order to lift the curse, a witch sets them the task of retrieving a strange variety of objects that she says will make a magic potion. A white cow, a red cape, yellow hair and a golden shoe are what they need – so it’s lucky that Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel and Cinderella are all wandering around the wood at the same time! In helping these four to live out their fairy stories, the Baker and his wife get one step closer to their own dream. But will they live happily ever after?
I can see the attraction of changing the setting to the present day – much like productions of the classics, this can be an easy way of making the content feel more relevant to a modern audience – however, for me, it just doesn’t work. Suspending your disbelief when a fantastical world confronts you is one thing, but when it’s as drab and uninspiring as this it’s nigh on impossible; the logic of a witch using an umbrella as a magic wand is there, but it just ends up looking a bit silly. And you’ll probably be unsurprised to hear that a group selfie at the end of both acts has managed to be crowbarred in, as if that’s the sure-fire way of saying “hey guys, we’re in the 21st century!”. Having never seen this musical before, going simply from a quick check online, it seems as if they’ve stayed fairly true to the original in terms of content – I just don’t know what Tim McArthur really wants us to get out of his production. There are enough things going on without layering modernity on top, so it all becomes a bit of a muddle.
Staging it in the round is a good idea in principle, as it makes the wood the central focus of the piece, but in practice it doesn’t work. The performance space is too cramped at the best of times, but when you get all 17 cast members bunching in for ensemble numbers it’s more crowded than the Tube at rush hour. There seemed to be a few technical issues with the sound at my performance, which didn’t help, but also having people singing solo parts in the corners doesn’t assist with audibility – you will only hear the person closest to you, and that’s not always the line you should be listening to.
Joana Dias’ set design fits well with the concept, even if it means the characters are going Into the Wooden Things rather than the actual Woods. The inclusion of ladders does at least mean a bit of height can be utilised occasionally, which is helpful when you consider the beanstalk and Rapunzel’s tower. Stewart Charlesworth’s costume designs also do a great job of bringing this world to life, such as the Made in Chelsea princes and TOWIE stepmother & stepsisters. It is, of course, fitting for Little Red Ridinghood’s “cape” to be a hoodie in this iteration – but there also needs to be continuity between her giving this to the Baker and him taking it to the witch (currently it’s switched to something that looks nothing like the hoodie – it’s a completely different shade of red, for one thing – between scenes).
Not only does McArthur direct, but he also stars in the show – a move that makes me increasingly uneasy, as it seems almost inevitable that one of the responsibilities will suffer. Unfortunately, particularly given that he’s taken the central role, McArthur’s acting is as wooden as the set. Sure, he can belt out the tunes with great ease, but when it comes to the dialogue everything’s on one level; no emotion, no pacing, and (despite the best efforts of Jo Wickham) no sense of intimacy with his wife.
The main shining light is Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, with beautiful, clear vocals, as well as convincingly sincere delivery – and great comic timing. Jamie O’Donnell is also quite sweet as the rather simple Jack.
My verdict? A disjointed (& incredibly lengthy) production that takes all of the fantasy out of the musical, making it a wooden watch in more ways than one – take the magic beans instead!
Into the Woods runs at The Cockpit until 24 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.