Into The Woods

 Bath Theatre Royal

"That was very good, but rather short" said Theatre-Buddy.

"I think this is the intermission" said I.

"In that case, that was very good, but quite long".

A similar thing happened about twenty years ago in a production of Pacific Overtures, the only other Sondhiem work I have ever consciously seen on the stage. (He wrote the words for West Side Story. And I saw the movie version of Sweeny Todd starring He Who Can No Longer Be Named.) Which I suppose only shows that Act One is a discrete, satisfying unit and Act Two is a second discrete, satisfying unit. Or that the whole point of the play is that Act One finishes on a Happy Ending and Act Two reveals what happened afterwards. 

A messy aftermath; a lot of death; and a less happy, but much more sustainable ending for the survivors.

I have noticed before that there are sections of Andrew Lloyd Weber, Les Miserables, and even Hamilton that sound quite a lot like each other. I now realise that what they all sound like is Sondhiem. Into The Woods was consistently melodic, enjoyable, emotional without at any point becoming actually memorable. I was kind of waiting for it to get to Send In the Clowns or I Was In A Tree or ... one of the other great Sondhiem songs which I temporarily can't think of... But it never quite did.

The big selling point of the evening was that the show was produced/designed by Terry Gilliam. Apparently he said a Bad Thing before it was due to open in London, but apparently the Theatre Royal felt able to forgive him. Considering it was a stage show, it felt a lot like a Gilliam movie; even, at times, like a Monty Python animation. There is a giant hen which lays golden eggs; origami puppet birds; and some beguiling shadow-play. The costumes are colourful; during the final Act I ensemble, fireworks appear to go off around a Disneyland-style palace. And in Act II there are genuine gasps from the audience when Jack's beanstalk Giant is represented by a huge foot descending from above the stage. They are the legs of a gigantic doll...

There's a Pollock-style cardboard toy theatre at the front of the stage; and the real stage is done up as a gigantic enlargement of the toy. Act I begins with a small girl playing with puppets. So the giant really is the a doll, the Cow is one of those thumb-push puppets that falls down when you press the base; and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a pile of gigantic baked bean tins. The story teller seems to be a Victorian undertaker, or possibly the Child Catcher. In Act II he becomes an avatar of Death. 

The toy theatre conceit means that the characters are portrayed in the style of an English Pantomime, which is not (I imagine) a theatrical form which Stephen Sondhiem would have been particularly familiar with. This produces a stylistic clash which may not be implicit in the actual text. The operetta is riffing on the dark, traditional versions of the Brothers Grimm; the story of Cinderella where the Sisters lop off their own toes and where birds peck their eyes out; but the characters themselves are comedic grotesques with ludicrous frocks and multi-coloured hair. 

I wonder if Sondheim ever played a free-form live-action fantasy role-playing game? That's what the first act reminded me of. Characters from three different fairy tales -- Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk all set off into a limited environment (the eponymous Woods) to fulfil specific, overlapping objectives. Meanwhile, two viewpoint characters, the Baker and his wife, are collecting plot-coupons related to the various quests: a lock of Rapunzel's hair; Red Riding Hood's cloak; Jack's cow. There is much crossing over of characters and passing of McGuffins from player to player until a more or less satisfactory conclusion is reached. 

The second half kind of refutes the happy-ever-after resolution: Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes both turn out to be philanderers and the wife of the giant which Jack killed in the first half comes for revenge. (I enjoyed the princes going after different fairy tale princesses. "Her skin was white as snow." "What was her name?" "I don't know but she was guarded by a dwarf.") I enjoyed the way Jack grows from being a comic simpleton to a more rounded and sympathetic hero. But I am not quite sure that the fundamentally silly premise can quite bare the thematic weight of the second half: it's hard to treat a pantomime dame's being squished by a giant doll as an actual bereavement. The show leant very heavily on Gilliam's stunning visuals, but there were points where I thought that the actual direction lacked nuance -- that it felt pantomimic in the wrong way. There were one too many scenes where all the characters bunched together on one end of the stage while another character sang at them from the other. I'd like to see a more stripped back production, one day, where acting and singing have to carry the story by themselves. I don't think the show really has very much to say, about fairy tales or about anything else, but it worked very well as entertainment, as spectacle, or to use the technical term, as a romp.

Jack's pantomime cow very nearly steals the show. 

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