FringeReview UK 2018
The Cockpit’s production comes with an already-Woods-experienced director and Baker, Tim McArthur. Joan Dias’ set of wood chippings and a nest of ladders swirl around a central duck-board platform. One ladder emulating a beanstalk reaches for the sky, lit at one point gradually by Vittoria Verta like a homely stairway to heaven. Stewart Charlesworth – fresh from his sassily outrageous award-nominated costumes for The Country Wife at Southwark – delivers sky blue pink here. Aaron Clingham’s band perform a mellow but pointed orchestration (Jonathan Tunick’s). Gavin Hales’ sound ensures everything’s to scale.
Sondheim’s 1987 Into the Woods is probably the latest of his works to enter into our bloodstream, though fine work followed. It’s so joyously busy: wonderful numbers, heart-stopping and heart-rending moments with a cautionary second half unskeining realities round the earlier cat’s cradle of fairy-tales.
The Cockpit’s production comes with an already-Woods-experienced director and Baker, Tim McArthur, who declined this dual role in 2014 and simply directed. He’s now eloquent on why this work’s deepened for him.
He brings too some of the previous cast to the theatre’s in-the-round setting: Joan Dias’ set of wood chippings and a nest of ladders swirl around a central duck-board platform. One ladder emulating a beanstalk reaches for the sky, lit at one point gradually by Vittoria Verta like a homely stairway to heaven. Elsewhere too Verta’s lighting is used to striking smoky effect in some solos (particularly the Witch) amidst haze effects and an atmospheric maximising of this eco-woodland. Gavin Hales’ sound ensures everything’s to scale – with an audience sometimes inches away from miked singers.
Stewart Charlesworth – fresh from his sassily outrageous award-nominated costumes for The Country Wife at Southwark – delivers sky blue pink here, most particularly in Cinderella’s sisters and step-mother’s Essex girls costumes. The Baker and his wife look out of Greggs, but in blue; the two princes (one for Cindarella, one for Rapunzel) suave sartorially about so ‘yah’ seems natural; Little Red Riding Hood is preppily scarlet and burgundy; Cinderella herself like Jack and his mother Womble about in Prairie peasantry. Cinderella’s princess dress is pretty topical, and we don’t miss her sporting a Hello Magazine’s coverage of a recent royal wedding elsewhere at the start of the second half.
Right from the start the blend of Aaron Clingham’s band above show what energy and scale the cast bring to a show where audience members might get trodden upon if they’re not careful. At least it’s better than being trodden on by a giant. The various winds blend plangently with the string trio and Clingham’s piano: it’s a mellow but pointed orchestration (Jonathan Tunick’s). The band deserved its own applause.
The childless Baker and his wife (Mcarthur and Jo Wickham) centre the action; it’s their quest tasked by the Witch (Michele Moran, who’s made them childless) to bring four items from the other fairy-tale characters that drives the story. And it has its consequences. So buy a milk-white cow from Jack (Jamie O’Donnell) and give him beans – his young mother’s contempt flings the into being – that beanstalk of course, Madeleine MacMahon with a can of lager and G-string showing with her midriff nothing like the stereotypical mother. Then the red hood of poor Little Red Riding Hood (Florence Odumosu) where snatching at it’s no good, it ahs to be offered. The rather unhappy Rapunzel (Louise Olley) in fact the Witch’s daughter, and finally Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Cinderella; and her shoe.
Drawing this further together for most of the action is Jordan Michael Todd’s nimble Narrator, emulating everything from cow-lowing to baby cries and a flutter of birds. Most of the narrative. There’s fates and flurries, revivals and as Ridinghood puts it about knowledge: ‘a little bit not’. And the Witch isn’t the only reveal, as Jonathan Wadey’s Mysterious Man, a fine character vignette proves. He’s like a counter or shadow narrator at points, drives the action with redemptive initiatives.
Comeuppance isn’t confined here to poor Florinda (Macey Cherrett) and Francesca Pim’s Lucinda, whose feet get trimmed by their ambitious mother (scarlet-and-proud Mary Lincoln). This is a wonderfully brassy trio, relegated to choric harrumphing but strikingly so. The sisters eyes at one point suffer what Rapunzel’s prince’s do: though with him there’s an antidote.
The princes too aren’t all they should be: One feels Rapunzel’s Prince Michael Duke is a decent man trying to deal with Rapunzel’s little problem in the second half – too much damage in the tower. Ashley Daniels, who performs one of the finest duets with Duke in ‘Agony’ which they reprise, is a little less faithful. There’s an unexpected beneficiary here, though it’s all too brief for several reasons. Daniels also revels as the Wolf. That might suggest the Prince is a bit of a rover. One of the great show-stoppers comes with triumphing over him and Odumosu’s ‘I Know Things Now’ torch-song, which she takes more energetically and forcefully than I’ve heard, with less faux-innocence. It’s valid and fresh and Odumosu’s acting captures her character’s bold independence, something the wood confers on everyone.
McArthur’s decent uncertainty, egged on by Wickham’s more ruthless desperate approach transforms and you feel this duo grow through ‘Maybe They’re Magic’ through the touching ‘It Takes Two’ to the very astray ‘Moments in the Woods’ which she sings alone – evocative and ultimately aching. She’s just sung another, ‘Any Moment’ with someone else. Wickham’s one of the most fully-realised characters, and of course McArthur’s journey strikes an even deeper note for reason that become clear enough by the end. He’s another sovereign performer, anchoring the sylvan moralities everyone stumbles on. Their combination’s a sequence of tender and painful.
The consequences of that Beanstalk, of giant-slaying, of each action brings home the consequence of bringing on a pained widowhood from above (Christina Thornton, who also plays Granny and Cinderella’s actual Mother) and the skein of interweaved responsibilities that have set something nasty on the land, and ensure not all our characters are going to make it through to the end. Jack might have started it, of course – appealing O’Donnell and the dour anguished Jack’s Mother MacMahon brings, all disappointed sexuality and hard-graft loneliness eating her young years. But the discussion amongst a remaining group as to sacrifice him or the luckless Steward (David Pendelbury’s oleaginous but murderous courtier) again hit snags; like conscience.
Carter-Simpson’s awakening Princess moves appealingly and with a strong ardent voice through to almost her top range as Cinderella, and you feel in a very short time she’ll take on larger roles. Carter-Simpson conveys wonder, grief (her mother’s grave is where she first solos) and finally resolution in a journey as developed in its way as the Baker’s duo.
Another is Moran’s transformative Witch, regaining beauty for the loss of her powers. You at first of course are meant to revile her lightly, then pity her plight. Ultimately her fears are partly vindicated, even though to an extent she’s done the damaging and her son-in-law as princes go isn’t a bad lot. Moran certainly explodes onto the scene up to her last great solo ‘Last midnight’.
This is an outstanding first-class revival, but more, it’s intimate: knowing and innocent at the same time. It sports a residual wisdom beyond its brief, and no praise can convey the feat of directing and performing a central role as McArthur does. With leads like Wickham, Moran, and MacMahon, discoveries like Carter-Simpson and Daniels, Odumosu and fine work from others like Todd, O’Donnell Duke and excellent smaller parts, there’s not a weak link here.