Review: INTO THE WOODS, Theatre Royal Bath

Terry Gilliam's giant and terrifically trippy version of Sondheim's classic

By: Aug. 26, 2022
Review: INTO THE WOODS, Theatre Royal Bath

Review: INTO THE WOODS, Theatre Royal Bath Once upon a time (last November) Monty Python's Terry Gilliam had his musical directorial debut "cancelled" at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Some of the staff purportedly objected to observations Gilliam made about transgender rights and the #MeToo movement - including that he now identified as "a black lesbian in transition". (Python-esque surreal humour in action?)

The production was "cancelled" after already being cancelled due to Covid. But along came fairy princess Theatre Royal Bath, who waved a magic wand and whisked the production to a new home. A terrifically trippy child's world on speed in a Victorian toy theatre within a theatre, conjured up by inventive 81-year-old Gilliam, and his co-director and choreographer, Leah Hausman.

Gilliam has a lot of fun (and so does the audience) with a set by Jon Bausor that could capture the Turner Prize. Conveying a mash-up of fairy tale plots in the show - Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood - Gilliam's at his post-modern best with a giant tower of baked beans and peas (where Rapunzel lets down her golden locks), an endearing long eyelashed cow, colossal pendulum clock, and a Steve McQueen/Buster Keaton collapsing house.

Cinderella's dead mother (voiced by Maria Conneely) is eerily portrayed as a singing wilted flower in a giant Salvador Dali-like vase that's really her grave. And the stand-out moment of greatness is (spoiler alert) a sinister giant baby doll, mirroring the animated foot in the opening titles of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Although this is a mind-altering feast for the eyes, there's a tendency for some of Sondheim's nuanced lyrics to get lost - particularly in the first half. Getting the balance between orchestra and singers appears to be an ongoing battle in theatres these days. Unfortunately, someone new to Into the Woods could miss a number of the composer's cleverest phrases.

That aside, this is a bouncy production (you could say it's full of beans), with many excellent performances. Nicola Hughes as the witch is commanding, Julian Bleach's Mysterious Man carries the action along wonderfully, and Alex Young's portrayal of the childless Baker's Wife is poignant as well as funny (especially in her should-she,-shouldn't-she tryst with Cinderella's Prince, played hilariously by Henry Jenkinson).

The ugly stepsisters (Jamie Birkett as Lucinda and Charlotte Jaconelli as Florinda) are brilliantly obnoxious. Cinderella's trajectory from young girl longing to marry a prince to disenchanted Royal prisoner is tracked believably (echoes here of Meghan and Diana) by an engaging Audrey Brisson.

Barney Wilkinson's Jack adeptly conveys stupidity, greed and grief. While a knife-wielding, Scottish Little Red Riding Hood (an excellent Lauren Conroy) becomes more and more bloodthirsty as the plot unfolds. And the still woodland creatures (rabbit, deer and mouse) add to the disturbing atmosphere in the forest.

There also needs to be a shout-out for backstage talent, such as lighting designer Mark Henderson, costume designer Antony McDonald, illusion design by John Bulleid and puppet creation by Billie Achilleos.

There's something to please everyone in this layered production. Even my musicals-loathing companion - who usually looks like he wants to escape into the woods during a performance - was won round by Rhashan Stone's rendition (as the Baker) of "No One is Alone". A song about pain, loneliness and loss, and why it's better to face things together to get out of the woods - a parable that couldn't be more apt in today's split society.

And the irony isn't lost on a gory Brothers Grimm production - that clocks up more deaths than a Scandi drama and could be the recipient of a multitude of content warnings - finally making it to the stage. As Sondheim says, be "careful the tale you tell...children will listen." But we do need to tell tales and children need to hear them.

Into the Woods is at Theatre Royal Bath until 10 September

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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