Into the Woods: Fairytales Come Out to Play.

Wednesday 15th June (evening), West Yorkshire Playhouse.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Opera North and West Yorkshire Playhouse have concocted an energetic and refreshing take on this musical (very recently a Hollywood blockbuster- so they had their work cut out!). Initially set in a Primary School classroom (before the children are led into the woods), this production presents fairytales through the eyes and imaginations of the children; the fairytales literally come out to play as the children are faced with the evil witch herself appearing atop their desk… With some impressive pipes and some clever casting, the company swept their way through the plot in a way which made the 2hrs + performance time feel much less of a drag than it might have been. It was a charming production and I left the theatre still humming, which I believe indicates definite success. That said, there were some rather large inconsistencies which, for me, were deserving of the unfortunate loss of a would-be four star review.

The Witch, played by Claire Pascoe, stole the show with an excellent transformation and a powerhouse performance of the showstopper, ‘The Last Midnight’. Helen Evora was a fantastic modern rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, presenting the audience with a character as exuberant and bubbly as her puffy red coat. Gillette Butterfield, playing Cinderella, made her ‘spills’ and her story both endearing and comical before tackling some of the most famous songs with gusto. Louise Collett and Dean Robinson made a great pair for the Baker and his wife, providing some of the most touching scenes of the production as well as some of the best comedy. Amy Freston’s voice was glorious and entirely befitting the songbird in the tower, Rapunzel, while Nicholas Watts, playing Jack, was a perfectly cast Jack-the-lad. The feuding brothers, played by Warren Gillepsie and Ross McInroy were fantastically funny and their rendition of ‘Agony’ was a definite highlight for me.

The only characters that I was a little shy of appreciating were the sisters, which had a lot to do with the very bad wigs- the Stepmother’s wig was outlandish but somehow suitable, while the sisters looked to have been lost in the dressing-up box. That said, the garish costumes were a treat and on that note, Cinderella’s gowns were the stuff of every girly-girl’s dreams…

The set design was resourceful and creative, with classroom walls becoming parts of the forest and tables used as a reminder of the overall structure (this is story time, remember). The ample use of swings were a great way to indicate the magnitude of the giant’s arrival and movement; the swaying of the chains cleverly indicating the impact of the footsteps. The glitter-as-blood trick was a beautiful manifestation of the through-the-eyes-of-children set-up and Milky White was surprisingly lovable, which has a lot to do with her puppeteer of course. Being made in part from actual milk bottles was also a lovely touch. The giant however, I was undecided about… I appreciate the effort with scale and I even appreciate the doll’s face as a tie-in with the story being seen through the imagination of children, but the separate arms-and-head combo didn’t quite manage to pull it off and at times, we delved into the land of pantomime…or Acorn Antiques! On reflection however, that may well have been intentional considering the set-up…

The concept of using a story time set up in a classroom to present the intertwining tales was an excellent one; fairytales as seen in the imagination of children- how utterly perfect! We begin with a class of children at school, and with the opening of the storybook, the play begins… However, the inconsistencies with this framework were rather distracting and I was a little disappointed; if my interpretation is accurate and this production is showing the audience the tales through the eyes of a child, then why the cigarette and pant zipping with the Baker’s wife and the prince? Surely an ‘icky’ kiss would have sufficed to demonstrate the lyrics in the mind of a child? I know many productions aimed at children include  these nods to the adult chaperones but in this case, it was through the eyes of children rather than aimed at them, so this aspect jarred with me. I am aware of course that the child actors were not on stage at this point, but actually…that’s my point! We began with children as observers and then they disappeared… Where were the children for most of the second act? Were the children multi-roling when physically interacting with the characters, or was this imagination? I am not saying that this apparent inconsistency detracted from the overall successes of course, merely that I was personally distracted by the inconsistencies.

Overall, I was impressed by the variety of strengths in this production of ‘Into the Woods’. I was incredibly impressed with the young actors; such focus and professionalism at such young ages was a genuine pleasure to see. Likewise, I thought Opera North were an excellent ensemble and regardless of my minor gripes with this very pleasing and entertaining production, I will certainly keep an eye out for their next production!

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