A West-End Musical in the Woods

Musical theatre gives me the shivers and I have no interest in watching Andrew Lloyd Webber find his Nancy. That being said, the only thing cold and perverse about the production of ‘Into the Woods’ at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park was the mid-August wind and fine drizzle that briefly threatened to interrupt the performance. That the show went on – and that I wanted it to continue – is testament to the successful retelling of the Broadway hit, which is based on the book by James Lapine with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The leafy backdrop provided by Regent’s Park makes the theatre (and the open-air toilets) the natural venue for a play set in the woods and every seat in the amphitheatre gives an unrestricted – if alternative – view of the four or five storey set on the stage.

Act one uses an original story about a baker, his barren wife and their quest to lift a witch’s curse which has hitherto prevented them from having a baby as a way of reminding the audience about the four interwoven fairy tales that will be developed in act two: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood.

A modern day schoolboy narrator adds an extra layer of complexity to the storytelling. Dressed in an orange hoody, the junior puppet master runs around the stage pulling the strings of his cast of fairy tale characters by manipulating a schoolbag full of voodoo dolls, including a stuffed toy version of Homer Simpson, a flame-haired troll and a pair of Barbie dolls with no clothes on. But not to worry, this second dimension should prove child’s play for anyone who managed to keep a close eye on the spinning dreidel in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.

My review of the musical up until the interval would have said that this funny story takes a similar approach to the Toy Story-type adventures that kids and their parents can both enjoy. But then the act two bomb is dropped and we learn what happens to each of the traditional fairy tales after everyone was meant to be living happily ever after…or not, as the case soon turns out to be.

The second half of the musical falls firmly in the adult camp and during the rampage of death, destruction and debasement that followed I noticed the mother in front of me cackle deliriously whilst her young daughter slept soundly by her side.

In fact, I’m not so sure I would have subjected a young child to Little Red Riding Hooding reaching sexual maturity with a wolf; a seemingly innocent fairy tale grandmother hacking said wolf into bloody pieces; the dim-witted Jack of Beanstalk fame ogling large breasts and cavorting with a musical harp made up like a gold-painted Jezebel, and a scary-looking witch hideous enough to make Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera think hard about raising their standards (forget hitting every branch on the way down, that freaky witch was actually made out of the ugly tree!).

The production is given a British twist from the start with a representative selection of regional accents on the stage, epitomised by a Northern Jack and his Nora Batty mother with permanent curlers in her hair. Greater contemporary pertinence is added when the freshly sheared Rapunzel is transformed into an alcoholic single mother of two and the generously sized Little Red Riding Hood starts carrying a flick-knife. But it is the two princes, a staple British attraction for the many tourists in the audience, who deliver the standout performances, aptly aided by a stuffy manservant in green codpiece livery.

Each prince cuts a dashing Russell Brand figure with rakish good looks, roguish behaviour and copiously applied guy-linger and their comedy partnership, which develops alongside their respective courtships of Rapunzel and Cinderella, culminates in the audience laughing and cheering at Prince Charming’s adulterous conquest of a married commoner.

‘Be careful what you wish for’ might be the official lesson to take away from this mash-up of vintage fairy tales but dating a celebrity prince is clearly an important caveat for the modern age. Every girl wants to bed royalty, even if Prince Charming wakes up the following morning, his unfastened trousers staying faithful to his silver-tongued reputation and caddish grin, and tells his one-night stand that his parents are to blame for him not calling her again, since they were the ones who raised him to be charming rather than sincere. Bravo!

Once the trousers come up, the second half of the performance is pulled together a little quickly and Lapine evidently has a preference for tying up any lose ends by having a giant trample on the characters surplus to his requirements. Nevertheless, the costumes are notable throughout, the staging is clever and well thought out, the ending is sweet (a little out of context perhaps) and I left the park singing the words to the songs. It seems the woods can do strange things to a man!

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