Fairy tales bare their teeth and truth

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If fairy-tale characters read their fairy-tales they would know that going into the woods is never a good idea. And yet off they go, time and again, to meet wolves and witches, be abandoned or lost. This rash impulse is the driving force for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 musical Into the Woods, given a droll outing here in the Opera House’s experimental wing.

Lapine’s plot assembles a collection of characters from different tales – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack – and sends them into the woods to tangle their yarns with another story: a quest by a baker and his wife to undo a curse and have a baby. Of course what the musical explores is the psychological hinterland of fairy tales: the woods become the unknown, the forbidden, the longed for. The refrain “I wish . . . ” echoes through the piece; the phrase “happily ever after” comes in for quizzical examination. Wealth, love, children – be careful what you wish for. Fairy tales, and hence the show, are about growing up.

But all this is delivered with Sondheim’s customary snap and crackle, which Will Tuckett’s production embraces with delight. Tuckett assembles a collection of performers from different disciplines – theatre, musical theatre, opera – and sends them into the thickets of Sondheim’s intricate musical style. They respond with panache, tiptoeing nimbly through the light and shade of the music and the briars and brambles of the lyrics.

Anne Reid, as Jack’s long-suffering mother, screws years of exasperation out of her tongue-twisting tirade about Jack’s cow. Suzanne Toase’s Red Riding Hood, a luscious Northern lass with a taste for the sensual pleasures in life, delivers many of her lyrics through a mouthful of sticky bun. Beverley Klein’s witch schemes and cackles, then finds to her dismay that once the spell is lifted and her youth is restored, she must conduct business in a tight red dress and without magic powers.

Lez Brotherston’s set begins by framing the characters with extracts from their stories, then whisks away the familiar words to plunge them into a woodland of gnarled, inky trees, bare light-bulbs and disorientating mirrors. In this murky forest, the psychosexual subtext of the stories is never far away. The two princes, Nicholas Garrett and Nic Greenshields, prance about the woods in silken splendour, constantly in pursuit of some unattainable maiden. But their splendid attire conceals dubious motives. Greenshields finds a wealth of double entendre in his desire to go “beyond the mossy knoll”; Garrett’s impatience to run Cinderella to ground is disturbing. Garrett also plays the wolf, a lascivious beast that drools over Red Riding Hood’s plump flesh. And at the heart of the story are the baker and his wife – touchingly portrayed by Anna Francolini and Clive Rowe – whose escapades in the wood revitalise their marriage.

The show’s biggest trick is to end happily, just before the interval, then start again. In the darker second half the characters realise that, in spite of getting what they wanted, they’re still restless. And so it’s back to the woods. Now the price of fulfilled wishes hits home: the sky falls in; a giantess stalks the land; even the narrator (a wry Gary Waldhorn) abandons them. It’s at this point that the show stalls: it takes too long to make its moral points; the giant-slaying plot grows tedious; it’s all too elaborately clever. Tuckett’s production throws startling effects at the problem, but can’t stop irritation from creeping in. But this is still a spry and inventive show, very hard to dislike, even if, by the end, we feel we have all spent a little too long in the woods.
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