“Into the Woods” genuinely transformed the Cranleigh School Speech Hall into the fairy-tale world which the over-arching slogan in the design “Once Upon a Time” evokes. Nikki Lockwood’s splendid production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” offered magic and enchantment in abundance and will be hugely enjoyed by the bumper audiences during this production week.
One of the qualities investing the show with this sense of magic is the beautifully designed set, masterminded by Mark Jenkins: simply the look of it is magical enough in itself. There is so much imaginative detail here: the bridge, and the balcony for Rapunzel, and beautifully dressed kitchen interior for Sondheim’s Baker and his Wife, as well as the large, flexible woodland glade into which magical apparitions moved and on several occasions flew, even details like the woodland branches, the strings of books and the use of book-pages as a back-drop – this was truly a space for excitement and fantasy. The visual aspect of the show reinforces some superb acting and singing, and provides a wealth of rich moments, featuring some superb custom-made props like Jack’s wonderful cow, the flying forest birds, and the remarkable Giant’s face which intrudes with appropriate menace in the Second Act. The impact of all of them is further enhanced by some splendid costuming superintended by Sarah Mercade which allowed the audience some splendidly judged insights into the personalities of the characters even before the actors had opened their mouths. There were some excellent make-up skills on show too, with Hats McKenna’s work particularly memorable in transforming Weston Lord into a very striking and malevolent Wolf.
Perhaps Sondheim sees himself as rather more a writer of operas than of musicals and this means that he deliberately eschews the easy melody, or the tune with the memorable catch-line. His musical theatre is more challenging (and, as some argue, more rich) for that, both for audience and for performers. That the cast sang with such conviction, confidence and sheer quality is testimony to the hours of patient and skillful work of musical director Marcus Pashley who conducted the show-band – tactfully located in the upstage area of the stage – with his usual expertise and sense of enjoyment. There were so many fine musical moments: Rapunzel’s atmospheric and powerful singing, the duets provided by the vaudeville turn of the two princes with their intertwined and confused love-life, memorable solos from Cinderella and the Baker’s wife, and many more – they all demonstrated a sense of character and technical accomplishment in their singing which was hugely impressive to see. Another sequence from the darkening Second Act which especially stood out is Ben Castle-Gibb’s song lamenting the disappointing nature of what human beings can be like (sung partly in duet with his father, played with excellent presence by a very convincing Cameron Scheijde). Ben here provided some really striking moments of pathos in his farewell performance on the Speech Hall stage in a performance of real quality. His wife – their story provides one of Sondheim’s original additions to the piece – was played subtly with considerable presence and maturity by the very impressive Olivia Al Marzook who certainly made the most of what her role offered.
Part of the special quality of the piece stems from the witty interlinking of the different fairy tales. Telling stories which are already partly familiar provides an unusual test for performers, given that the audience come with a series of expectations – some of which the writer satisfies in “Into the Woods”, some of which he delights in confounding. Therefore one of the real strengths of the production lies in the excellent individual character work provided by the principles, in both comforting and challenging our expectations. Jack (Tim Ayling) not only sang with great accomplishment but also found an appropriate comic idiom in his relationship with his sometimes authoritarian, sometimes soft-hearted mother (played with a really precise sense of caricature by Ellie Smith). Little Red Riding Hood was presented with poise and style by Ella Batham-Reed who managed most impressively to show the progression of the character from initial innocence and occasional glibness into the much more self-doubting and troubled figure of the Second Act, where the woods seem to have become a metaphor for what Hamlet would have called “the sea of troubles” inherent in life. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her on the Cranleigh stage. Bella Marr’s Rapunzel was also splendidly sung and presented with an appropriate sense of self-possession (especially impressive given that your opportunities for acting are quite limited when you’re trapped in the confines of a tower!). Her prince, played with humour and style by Alex Livingstone, engaged the audience fully, both in humorous and poignant moments. Both he and the Steward Kuzivakwashe Ndewere also made fitting final contributions to the Cranleigh stage and will be very much missed.
The development of individual characters into emotional and psychological areas unexpected for the audience indeed provides one of the key elements which sustains the show so effectively over two and a half hours of playing-time – time which seemed to go very quickly. Sondheim’s idea that Cinderella’s prince becomes a serial philanderer for instance, providing an ironic shock for the audience, was well exploited in Ollie Clark’s typically fine and poised performance. His would-be seduction of the Baker’s wife was particularly powerful, as was the concomitant sense of rejection felt by Cinderella (Kimi Zoet). Kimi’s characterisation came over throughout as convincing and mature. There was a real sense of clarity in her playing and the usual “niceness” of Cinderella was splendidly developed in the later scenes into something more complex and disturbing. The trio of her Step-mother and her two Ugly Sisters were amusingly played by three younger members of the cast, Olivia Chesser, Nell Mitchell and Fayruz Megdiche. They fully exploited the humour of their roles and clearly enjoyed their work greatly!
Also from the younger age-range within the cast – and suggesting that they will have plenty to offer Cranleigh theatre in the coming years – were Toby Chesser and Amy Slade who, as the narrators, worked throughout the show with sustained energy and verve. These roles are not easy: whilst the rest of the cast have “showy” opportunities, provided by caricature detail, striking costume and comic business, the narrators in “Into the Woods” have to sustain the pace and fun of the narrative simply through how they tell the story – which Amy and Toby did with great style. This same level of energy was seen too in the whole-cast number “Into the Woods” which provides a recurrent and subtle motif through the action. The impact of this song was reinforced by Jo Meredith’s appropriately understated choreography. The accomplished work of sound engineers Mike Hay and Max Fitzgerald served all the actors well. They will come to recognise these two as unsung heroes during show week – heroes along with the stage managers Anna Forrester and Harrison White whose work also provides a corner-stone for the success of the show. Anna in particular has made a huge contribution to Cranleigh theatre over her time here and will no doubt continue to guide casts sympathetically and professionally through their shows in the world beyond school.
One other performance which made perhaps the major contribution to the coherence and impact of the piece is the role of the Witch, played by Phoebe Bagge. Phoebe really made the most of the Gothic opportunities furnished by this role, both with her singing, and with the vocal attack with which she approached her dialogue. Her costume transformation provided yet another strikingly memorable moment: and the change in the didactic message of her song – from the opening “children won’t listen” to the more optimistic “children will listen” – was appropriately highlighted through her singing as perhaps one of Sondheim’s key messages in the show.
Any set comes to life of course only if it is really well served by the way it is lit: and in this respect Mark Jenkins’s work was again of exceptional quality. Simply to hang and point the number of lights required to create so many different atmospheres requires hours of lonely work; and once that has been done, then even more hours of careful plotting and control. The variety of tone, colour, direction and texture the lighting achieved seemed almost infinite at times and, coupled with some subtly appropriate, moderate use of hazing and gobos, the lighting design served the piece beautifully. Robbie Mathews clearly provided a very able second-in-command for Mark; and as well as to him, huge credit should go to the follow-spot operators Hugo Fortescue, Rupert Wilson-Harris, Ned Weston and Seb Bell, led by Jon Stocks, who have a huge amount of work to do throughout each performance, given how important “follows” are in this kind of pantomimic musical theatre.
The idiom of pantomime requires real discipline in performance – and part of the art of attaining that discipline is that the audience should not really notice it is there. This is what Nikki Lockwood – a long-time lover of the show – remarkably managed to achieve with a cast of performers who will remember their experience of “Into the Woods” for a long time: as indeed will those who are lucky enough to see it!