Into the Woods

Nov 22 2019 | By More

★★★★☆  Shady

Pleasance Theatre: Wed 20 – Sat 23 Nov 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

There’s laughter, edged with more than little darkness, to the Eusog’s splendid and convincing production of Into The Woods playing the Pleasance theatre to Saturday.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical has a lively, modern feel to it, but is strong enough to sustain a certain roughness of delivery. James Lapine’s book blends a quintet of favourite fairytales to deliver a fable that is not just packed with morals but emphasis the darkness of the source material.

Rob Merriam, Julia Weingaertner and Gordon Stackhouse. Pic Andrew Perry

Under the direction of Sean Vannet, Eusog play to all the material’s strengths. The show does have a few rough points, but these are nearly all of the technical variety to do with issues over the set and sound design.

There’s nothing to fault with the band under the baton of Richard Blaquière, however. They are tight and supportive of the cast on stage, a constant murmuring of colour and texture under the company’s delivery – which itself is noteworthy for the clarity of its diction. All serving the plot.

At the centre of the show are a childless Baker and his Wife. Their run-in with the witch next door, and attempts to break the curse of childlessness, sends them off into the woods – and twines in story elements and the characters from Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Rob Merriam and Julia Weingaertner provide assured performances as the central couple. Vocally, they are more than equipped to serve the demands of both Sondheim’s tunes and his lyrics. Theatrically, they convince as a couple who always have an argument burbling away, but are morally strong and supportive of each other. Up to a point…

strong and engaging

Vocally, the star of the show is Lori Flannigan as the Witch. She’s not just a cackling being next door, but a major influence on the narrative. Flannigan has the kind of strong and engaging voice that can be vicious but which carries real authority.

Maya Sargent and Rory Bayliss-Chalmers. Pic Andrew Perry

There is strong support throughout the cast, however. And while some the performers have less rounded characters to portray Vannet sets just the right tone between caricature and character – depending a lot on the former but allowing the latter to develop in the right places.

The all-square Rory Bayliss-Chalmers and foppish Ewan Bruce who both double as Princes and wolves are a case in point for the creation of caricatures. Their predatory wolves adding menace, but their two princes being all the more recognisable in the light of recent interviews with royalty.

Meredith Mack as Cinders’ step mother with Olivia Hall and Áine Higgins as her horrible sisters, add a different layer of brutality. But there is something of the other about Angus Bhattacharya, as Mysterious Man, which is not just comic, but has a proper undertow of, well, mystery.

Happy ever after

However it is with the likes of Gordon Stackhouse as dim Jack (with Georgie Carey as his overbearing mother), Jess Butcher’s charming Cinderella, or Maya Sargent’s strong-headed Little Red, that the most nuance in character development can be seen, as the Bakers attempt find four key items and the whole suite of characters – Witch and all – can earn the right to have their wishes come true and live happily ever after by the end of the first half.

It’s a solid first half too, playing nicely with the form of fairytales, teasing out a clever merging of the stories and providing some clever meta situations thanks to the Narrator (Rory McKeon) tucked away on the corner of the stage.

The company. Pic Andrew Perry

But it is in the second half that it gets really interesting, both as a piece of musical theatre and in this production.

The arrival of a Giantess seeking retribution for her husband and spreading random death was seen as an AIDS metaphor by early audiences. Today, it feels as if there is something more general to be heard, about the indiscriminate nature of social injustices and the nature of loss.

The specifics are embedded in re-examinations of the female-male power dynamic and the relationship between children and their parents, framed within questions of blame and whether anyone is truly innocent.

By letting the comedy rise early in the show, Vannet allows such darker elements to have much more force when they do come through. And his performers relish the opportunities given them for their big solo, duet and quartet numbers of the second act, which takes the whole production up another level.

As a company, Eusog is blessed with strong singers – for all voices – and the knowledge about how to use them. The production is served well by  choreographer Alice Whiteman and set designer Matthew Marsland. Resulting in an evening that should be a pleasure for Sondheim fans and neophytes alike.

Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes (including one interval)
The Pleasance, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance EH8 9TJ
Wednesday 19 – Saturday 23 November 2019

Evenings: 7.30pm, Sat mat: 2.30pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

The company and orchestra. Pic Andrew Perry


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