Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 16 January 2016
Manchester’s Royal Exchange Christmas production is always a welcome alternative to the traditional festive fare, and this year Artistic Director Matthew Xia has taken on the Stephen Sondheim spectacular, Into the Woods. With a notoriously challenging musical score that makes even highly accomplished musicians run for the hills, the Exchange makes Into the Woods look like a walk in the park. Laden with wit, plenty of trees and stellar performances throughout – the execution and delivery of this contemporary fairytale adventure is superb.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, Into the Woods takes the main characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella and intertwines each of their fairytale quests. The musical is tied together with an original story about a baker, his wife and their wish to start a family. As the result of a witch’s curse, the couple are childless and their only hope is to reverse the evil spell by venturing into the forest to track down a list of ingredients.
The show runs at a lengthy three hours – the first act is a complete joy ending on a high with every character getting their wish. The second act sees a darker evaluation and the arrival of a giant, with booming voiceover by Maxine Peake, who threatens to undo all of the good work.
Puppeteer Rachel Goodwin moves the emaciated Milky White perfectly with David Moorst playing foolish Jack. Prepare yourself for Natasha Cottriall’s Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with Michael Peavoy’s Wolf which is hilariously funny – with a clever illusion that will keep you guessing.
Award-winning actress Gillian Bevan becomes The Witch and intelligent costume design means she carries an impressive vegetable patch around with her too. Note-perfect performances from Francesca Zoutewelle as Cinderella and Isabelle Peters as the disturbed but angelic-voiced Rapunzel. The show is packed with laughs throughout but comic highlights are definitely reached during the ‘Agony’ duet between Rapunzel’s Prince, Marc Elliott and Cinderella’s Prince, Michael Peavoy.
Suitable for ages 10 and up, Matthew Xia’s Into The Woods is a triumph – with its glorious Sondheim musical score, arranged by Julian Kelly and played superbly by a live band, with stellar performances all round – it should certainly be on your must-see list this Christmas.
Into The Woods is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 16 January 2016.