Cockpit Theatre, London – 24 June 2018
One of the main reasons that fairytales have endured as long as they have is that they are timeless, their messages recited as-is at bedsides since time immemorial. Recognising this, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods gives us a first half which takes us deep into this enchanted world as we know it and waiting until after the interval to show us what happens after happy ever after.
So the notion of updating the show to a specifically 21st-century context is an intriguing one, as director Tim McArthur draws in influences such as The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Rab C Nesbitt.
On the one hand, it offers a fresh take on well-known characters; on the other, it also provides a distracting layer onto characters that barely need it. The result is a well-performed interpretation that rarely feels essential.
For the best performances largely come from those unburdened by the conceit. Jo Wickham’s deeply compassionate Baker’s Wife, Jordan Michael Todd’s clear-sighted Narrator, Abigail Carter-Simpson’s beautifully voiced Cinderella, Florence Odumosu’s self-possessed Little Red Riding Hood (admittedly, having her cape be a hoodie is a great innovation).
But if Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke do give strong work with their SW10 princes (their ‘Agony’ is a real highlight, yaah), Jack and his mother are lumbered with a dour Glaswegian characterisation that saps the life (and intelligibility) out of their storyline. Crucially, this predilection to the darker side of the tracks means that there’s nowhere to go in the second half, the necessary contrast is missing.
McArthur’s direction doesn’t quite utilise the space well enough either, tending too much to the static. Joana Dias’ inventive design of ladders and crates looks great in the round but too often, the action lacks the fluidity to embrace the audience watching from all sides. Aaron Clingham’s musical direction is noteworthy though, doing justice to the effortless melodies of Sondheim’s score.
So, far from an unenjoyable production but one which proves that the art of effective updating takes more than just a selfie stick.