Saturday, 12 September 2015

Into the Woods, Dramatic Productions, Gunghalin Theatre

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's musical is the most obviously commercially appealing of their three shows - a plot consisting of fairy stories jammed together is always going to have much wider audience than a french painter or an italian stalker - but it still has traps for performers, including a varying tone (with some scenes playing as broad spoof, and others as deeply emotional explorations of loss and pain), Sondheim's trademark "how many words can we squeeze into three minutes" phrasing and odd rhythmic patterns, and an ending that doesn't entirely hold up to scrutiny (the second act spends extensive time criticising the characters for having behaved dubiously without thinking the consequences, only to turn around and let them behave dubiously without thinking of the consequences again to resolve everything).

Dramatic Productions unevenly satisfies these requirements. There's some particularly strong performances, as well as a few lacklustre ones, but a strong sense of pace keeps the action rolling along reasonably nicely. In act two, in particular, the show develops a sense of desolation as misfortune after misfortune pile up on the characters, and there's some nice character work there. But there's also a couple of places where performers are only working on a purely surface level - playing for the laugh at the expense of playing for the truth. THere's also some wandernig accents around the cast - some play regional british, some are definately singing in an American accent (although here it might be that the songs rhyme properly in american but not in british). 

Vocally and individuallly, Grant Pegg as the Baker and Veronica Thwaites-Brown as the Baker's wife are dramatically interesting and sound wonderful - although there is a slight lack of chemistry throughout that means they seem more like buddies than a married couple. Sian Harrington's Red Riding Hood switches effortlessly between the sweet ingenue and the brattish, knife-weilding, bun-stealing child in a delightful perfomrance. Kelly Roberts' Witch has cackling, fast-moving evil in her crone form and smooth elegance in her beautiful form (although she's having problems with the sleeves of her costume, which appear a little tangled - the costumes generally are a slight hinderance-  with several of them borrowed from the Victorian Opera's performance of last year, not all of them seem to have been re-tailored to fit the new actors - there's also a slightly alarming phallus on one of the knobs on the set which I'm going to assume was Victorian Opera's attempt at pointing to the freudian undercurrents, though it remains unacknowledged by the rest of the production, and I'm not sure if I'm just seeing willies on the set in places I shouldn't). 

Elsewhere in the cast, Miriam Miley-Read has little to do as Cindarella's Stepmother but does it with wit, charm and a good evil-cackle, Brian Kavanaugh's Steward is similarly not doing very much but being delightfully supercillious whenever he is doing it. Alexander Clubb is pushing too hard in both of his roles - his growls as the wolf tend to over-ride comprehensibility and musicality, and he's overplaying for laughs as Cindarella's prince - his material is naturally funny and it needs light, airy playing, not the elbow-in-the-chest he's delivering.

Damien Slingsby's musical direction is smart, focussed and sounds good - Kathryn Jones' choreography feels kinda like unnecessary trotting about a lot of the time, but never the less if you're going to have choreography in this show, this is certainly choreography. 

All in all, this is a production that's enjoyable to watch in several places but feels a little skimped in others - it works better than the movie simply because the movie trimmed in a few too many places that started to damage sensible plotting - but there's still a sense that there's a better version of this production with a few key recastings and a little bit more focus on the undercurrents here and there.

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