Edinburgh Playhouse: Fri 31 July/Sat 1 Aug 2015
Wise beyond their years, the young performers of Stage Experience find the dark corners of Sondheim and Lapine’s great musical Into the Woods at the Edinburgh Playhouse.
The plot involves a quartet of fairy tales – Little Red, Jack, Cinderella and Rapunzel all feature – but is not a nursery tale by any means of the imagination.
All Sondheim and Lapine’s grotesquery, death and destruction is very much present in Peter Corry’s production. Although the show exists in a reduced form for youth companies, Corry has given his 11-24 year-olds the the compliment of letting rip on the full piece.
Which is as it should be when you consider what fairy tales are really about. They are the most primeval of stories in which we explain and come to terms with our innate terrors and explore the relationships between grownups and children.
The four tales are taken up and twisted in with a new story. A childless baker and his wife find out that their neighbour, a witch, has cast a spell of infertility upon them. To lift the curse they have to seek out four magical elements which belong to the four fairy tale protagonists.
This demands a huge cast of named characters, which is perfect for such a project as this. Although, even when stretched out to almost 30, there are still not enough to give every one of the 120 individuals involved a named role.
Corry’s solution is to use the ensemble as an on-stage chorus whose voices do not just provide a vocal framework, but whose become the scenery itself.
And it works very well for the most part, although the extra business generated is largely responsible for the overlong, three hour running time.
They are the bricks and mortar of the Baker’s house, for example. Producing the bread which Kieran Wynne’s richly complex Baker and Ellie Campbell stunningly portrayed Wife give to Olivia Hemmati’s pushy Little Red Riding Hood. And providing the commentary that indicates her greed. The latter is a necessary element in itself, as nuances of performance which might be obvious in a smaller venue can become lost in the vastness of the Playhouse.
Mostly, however, they are the woods. The dense forest in which Ross Tucker’s excellent Jack tries to lose himself when sent off by his overbearing mother (Megan Travers) to sell his cow, Milky White (Leyton Loughran), at market.
Or the low-lying branches over which Heather McFarlane’s forthright Cinderella falls when running from the ball and the attentions of her Prince, who Gordon Horne gives all the overbearing arrogance of a Bullington Boy.
When Horne doubles as the Wolf – the symbolism of the doubling is not made as obvious in this production as it might be – they are the shifting glades into which Little Red wanders all too easily.
And when the show gets down and dirty in the second half, the sound of their feet pounding up the aisles into the auditorium heralds their arrival as the giantess who comes to wreck the fantasy of Happy Ever After.
This, in particular, is very clever move. It makes sense in plotting terms but, by speaking in chorus from among the largely grown-up audience, they also enhance its symbolism. Here is the adult world clashing with and destroying the naive world of make-believe fairy tales.
There are excellent performances all round from the soloists, but Corry and his musical director Matthew Reeve have found some real future stars for the biggest roles.
Principals and ensemble. Photo Stephen Clinton
Campbell’s performance as the Baker’s Wife is perhaps the finest of the lot as she combines great complexity in her character with a strong singing voice. Equally strong of voice, Freya Hoppe’s glistening high solo notes for Rapunzel are another treat – although there is less character for her to work with.
Zoe Moore, as the witch, emerges from behind the facade of old crone to embrace an altogether more Wicked character, channelling Elpheba as the plot develops. And McFarlane really engages with the role of Cinderella, bringing a strength and understanding not always associated with the character.
Scott Coltman leaps on the stage in a completely unexpected performance as the Mysterious Man, easily holding his own. While there is more complexity from Kieran Wynne, who explores the central role of the Baker with great effect.
It is not all dark, however. Much of the delight in the production lies in discovering how the four tales are being worked into the script, with all the well-known twists adding their own level of understanding to what is going on.
And there are moments such as the realisation that, when the greedy wolf’s tummy when it is slit open, the three characters jumping out of it are the Three Little Pigs. Or when other, equally iconic, fairy tales are given their place on the stage.
A big, although sometimes overheavy, production which more than gets to grips with big piece of musical theatre, not least in its rendition of a score which is often as complex as the plot.