Theatre Royal, Bath – until 10 September 2022
Humanity in every century has needed to plunge into the dark forests, questing or fleeing, finding wonders or wolves: it’s in Dante, Malory and Shakespeare, and a thousand folk-tales and fairytales. It is these childhood tales which are entangled and questioned and enlarged in Sondheim’s extraordinary collaboration with James Lapine (who wrote the ‘book’ of this classic, jokily wise, intelligently absurd musical fantasy).
Here a Pollock’s paper Toy-Theatre frame, intricately Victorian in monochrome, surrounds Bath’s proscenium. Drawn figures blend towards the real galleries, actors emerge solid as nursery-figures from paper boxes. Jon Bausor’s design and Anthony McDonald’s costumes joyfully create a living toybox of people and creatures against fairytale houses and immense moving treetrunks.
It’s a portmanteau tale, as a humble baker and his wife yearn for a baby and try to escape a witch’s curse while Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, beanstalk Jack and Rapunzel all mingle to confuse things and compete and argue. Terry Gilliam is just the man to realise it: his Python sensibility helps, and he co-directs with Leah Hausman who, with dancer-choreographer wit, can make every movement speak whether in somersaulting pratfall or darkening tragedy.
It’s always an arresting show: spiky Sondheim music and arresting lyrics you take away for ever, wild wit, looming menace, dry jokes. He is never without properly troubling depths, Sondheim, and here offers a harshly wise, hilariously serious reflection on the vanity of wishes and the power of childlike imagination in a world of flawed adults. And in hands like this – Gilliam’s and Hausman’s – Into The Woods becomes an event to remember for life.
I don’t want to depress the Old Vic, whose people I revere, but I have to say that they got a seriously bum deal when – late on in preparations – they did worse than Idle Jack by exchanging this absolute five-star marvel for a handful of dubious ideological magic-beans. To lose such a show just because the old rogue Gilliam knocked out a couple of contrarian jokes feels like… well, complaining that a wood is too full of trees. They could have had its giants in the sky, soaring theatrical realisation and peerless satirical wit. Theatrical magic is scarce and precious: no tactless harmless gag by a mischievous ageing contrarian is worth losing such a show.
So far , alarmingly, no tour beyond Bath is confirmed, but it is admirable for this smallish theatre to serve us a cast of 22, ten-piece orchestra and spectacular singing, sound and staging (wait till you see the giant arrive in Act 2). So get to Bath if the late Stephen Sondheim means anything to you at all. Relish the bold and striding Red Ridinghood of the young Scot Lauren Conroy; fall for Audrey Brisson’s Cinderella as she too subverts fairytale femaleness; enjoy Nicola Hughes’ witchy ferocity even when, magic broken, she dresses like Liz Truss. Henry Jenkinson and Nathanael Campbell (who doubles as a worryingly Me-Too era wolf) are wonderfully funny as the two princes who once they have their princesses bemoan the “intriguing, fatiguing” male yearning for the next one, who is out of reach in her glass casket guarded by dwarfs. Enjoy the theatrical magic of owl and deer and birds – it’s a very skilled ensemble – and a superb rendering of MilkyWhite the toy cow as Faith Prendergast becomes its innards. Don’t miss the bloodstained triumph of Red Riding Hood or the understandably staggering gait suffered by a giant chicken who has just endured the passage of a very large golden egg.
An early criticism of the piece when it was first produced was a lack of psychological credibility in the second act, when everyone fails to live happy ever after owing to unfinished giant business, disillusion, mother-daughter resentment, envy, boredom, parenting problems and the general human awareness that “We disappoint, we leave a mess”. The criticism was that the breakneck pace and absurdity blurred a real sense of pain and character as the stage becomes as littered with corpses as any Hamlet. But here, Rhashan Stone and Alex Young as the Baker and wife do find real pathos; so do the Witch and her daughter, Maria Conneely’s traumatized, resentful Rapunzel.
And so it should be. Children around a toybox ,or hearing a story, will live, imagine, enact and play out stories with passionate intensity. The genius of this piece is that if we give ourselves up to Sondheim, so can we.
Box office : theatreroyal.org.uk. To 10 September