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David Ovenden

Are you certain what you wish is what you want? - Into the Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

8 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

Stephen Sondheim’s 1988 musical Into the Woods is one of the big Broadway successes, decorated with various Tony awards, multiple revivals under its belt and a massive Disney film adaptation starring Meryl Streep. The Cockpit is an intimate fringe theatre venue in Marylebone. Sondheim, the “Mozart of America” doesn’t really do small shows. And yet, the intimate setting works well.

Played in the round, the entire floor is covered in woodchip and in the small space, this not only feels soft and a bit adventurous under the feet, it also smells woody and damp, instantly engaging the senses and transforming the atmosphere as you enter the theatre.

 Into the Woods (photo by David Ovenden)

The whole set is made of wood, wooden palettes and ladders of various size are piled into a pyramid shaped platform in the centre, with various ladders suspended off the ceiling and wood panels around the auditorium, giving this whole production a very nice eco-vibe. Transported firmly into the 21st century by director Tim McArthur, the costumes, which seem to be mostly sourced second-hand, add perfectly to this, with many of the characters looking like they might be off to a hip eco-friendly festival, all plaid shirts and hipster beards. Jordan Michael Todd leads the plot along as the Narrator, with a clear voice and a very engaging, sympathetic manner, though without the more sinister vibes that Sondheim is usually presented with.

The esteemed genius of musical theatre is well able to write a swooning Broadway tune when it’s right, but for Into the Woods, Sondheim sticks firmly to his trademark ragged, rickety rhymes, jumbled rhythms and slightly disharmonious, uneasy chords, which still sound so surprising and fresh and are yet so ruthlessly challenging for performers. But a script this solid is also a gift to actors, as pretty much all lines and jokes still land with any audience and through any reimagining.

Into the Woods (photo by David Ovenden)

The woods, in traditional German fairytales (and let’s face it, most of the dark and twisted fairytales are German in origin) represent the subconscious, a place of hidden desires and transformation. As Sondheim very aptly states: “You have to go into the woods to get out of the woods.” Our bunch of mixed fairytale characters all have an unfulfilled desire, something they wish for and a transformation to go through to get it: Cinderella (Abigail Carter-Simpson) longs to go to the festival at the palace, her ugly stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda, portrayed as garishly painted and vain TOWIE trash, want to get the prince, a baker and his wife (McArthur himself and Mary Lincoln) wish for a child but their family has been cursed by the witch, played by Michele Moran.

Into the Woods (photo by David Ovenden)

She looks fantastic as an old bag lady in nasty knee-high nylons and a slashed man’s overcoat pulling a dirty trolley behind her and Moran acts the role wonderfully. However, her “rap”, one of the fastest lyrics written for a musical before Hamilton came along, is not crisp and on point, as The Cockpit experiences some sound issues. The importance that has been given to the various accents of the different characters above clarity of the lyrics also adds extra difficulty to the already demanding script. A similar problem persists with Jack and his beer swigging, fag smoking, tracksuit wearing trailer trash mother, played by Madeleine McMahon. The characterisation is hilarious but comprehensibility of her lines gets sacrificed.

Into the Woods (photo by David Ovenden)

But despite these sound issues, most of Sondheim’s wizardous word-smithery comes across, as every familiar fairytale gets flipped on it’s head and takes a turn for the dark side. There are undertones in Sondheim’s script that are deeply sinister: the wolf stalking Little Red Ridinghood is very openly not just a predator but a paedophile. These notions get lost in this production as Little Red, in a red tracksuit and headphones, isn’t any younger - or more naïve for that matter - than her pursuer.

The two princes (Ashley Daniels and Michael Duke) are again wonderfully construed as characters straight out of Made in Chelsea, in outrageously dandyish pastel suits, bowties and peppering their every lines with elongated “yah’s”. But again, the darker subtext of Sondheim, who portrayed these princes as relentless pursuers not remotely put off by rejection or concerned with consent, is missed. They are just very funny. And so they should be. Into the Woods is funny and clever and sinister, mercilessly difficult for singers and musicians, and always worth revisiting. Just like fairytales, Sondheim’s masterpiece speaks eternal truths about human beings, no matter what time period it is set in.
 
Into the Woods is at the Cockpit Theatre until 24 June. Tickets are £24.
 
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