JAMIE HARDIE reviews UCL Musical Theatre Society’s production of Into the Woods.
What would happen if you threw together several well known fairy tales, re-added a healthy dose of their original Brothers Grimm brutality, and let the whole thing play out in a post-apocalyptic wasteland?
Theatre asks us questions, and this is the first question posed by UCL Musical Theatre Society’s production of Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Shaw Theatre. It is made clear throughout that this production is not set in a traditional fantasy landscape: from the first view of a stage furnished with exposed steel and hanging chains, while an eerie soundscape conjures up the titular woods, to the burst of static as the show begins, and the narrator (Samuel Hegedus) reads out his introduction in crisp BBC tones like the last broadcast of a dying civilisation. Through the interval, too, members of the crew in forensic suits hang bio-hazard warnings around the stage; the final act sees the characters huddle desperate, dirty, and not-quite-alone, struggling to survive like refugees of doomsday. The costumes and props are worn and tattered; Cinderella cleans up empty cans of Stella; air raid sirens wail during key songs – even the orchestra is sealed off behind metal barriers, as though they have been interned. A sense of unease is sustained by Dale Sewell’s innovative choreography, as the ensemble twist themselves into angular and often predatory shapes. The overall impression is one of creeping dread, a feeling of impending doom that aligns perfectly with the structure of the musical itself. The first act’s saccharine conclusion is portrayed as manic propaganda, and a comparison is drawn between the appearance of the second act’s fantasy antagonist and the natural or man-made disasters of the modern world.
Yet, despite this nightmarish vision, the musical remains a joy to experience. The wit and vigour of the writing, brought to life by charismatic performances from the cast – particularly Cinderella’s step-family (Imogen Hartley, Alice Coombes, and Tanwen Stokes) and the oblivious princes (Adam Haddour and Abel Law) – often provoked laughter from the audience, a welcome release of the tension built by the production’s moody atmosphere. The vocals were strong and at times thrilling, and the orchestra navigated the intricacies of Sondheim’s score with admirable panache. Special mention must go to Livvy Perrett for her sensitive and charming portrayal of the Baker’s Wife.
The chief allure of Into the Woods is its exposure of childhood tales to the adult themes of violence, sexuality, and death. Director Olivia Burgin has embraced this clash of ideals. She shies away from nothing: characters are crushed and blinded with gruesome severity, often accompanied by chillingly visceral sound effects, and real sensuality is expressed freely, such as during the transformation of the Witch (April Stanhope) back to her voluptuous youth, or the disturbing advances of the Wolf (Emanuele Frascadore) on Little Red Ridinghood (Anthea Xydas). The infidelity of the princes is mostly played for laughs, but becomes passionate in its execution, and the aftermath is authentic and touching. Similarly, while the mounting body count is at times slapstick, the human consequence of loss is conveyed with genuine emotional impact in quieter moments.
This complex texture of tone gives the production room to explore far-reaching questions about ethics, responsibility and wish-fulfilment. In the end, these are the questions at the heart of Into the Woods: not the remote problems of fairy tale or dystopian worlds, but universal concerns about right and wrong, the dangerous nature of desire and the resilience – or absence – of the human cooperative spirit in extremity.
Into the Woods is running at the Shaw Theatre until Saturday 17th Feb. Find tickets and more information here.
Featured image designed by Nina Zhou.