Not far from the spectacular fantasy epic of The Lord of The Rings in Drury Lane, the Royal Opera House stages Into the Woods, Sondheim’s take on the fairytale genre in its 420 seater Linbury Studio Theatre. Here we follow Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his beanstalk and a barren Baker and his wife on a quest that takes them into the woods so that they can live happily ever after. But of course this being Sondheim things don’t turn out all that happy, and coming back to the second act we see our protagonists lives wrecked by selfishness, blame and recriminations. Naturally we are given some crumbs of comfort about the human condition and our ability to possibly work it our in the end (as long as a widowed giant doesn’t squash us to death). Some of Sondheim’s best known songs can be found in this 1986 show, including ‘Giants in the Sky’, ‘Agony’, and ‘No More’, but I find it one of his least compelling compositions, although I still very much enjoy it, but do not hold it in quite the esteem as Follies, Pacific Overtures or Sweeney Todd.
I expected Will Tuckett, experienced choreographer and former dancer, to make movement, if not dance, integral to the show; it’s certainly not a dance musical in the traditional sense (there are no real dance numbers in fact). But Tuckett has gone for a very traditional style production, with little of his flair on display, one notable exception being his sinewy and surprisingly sexual Wolf, who menaces Little Red Riding Hood and moves like animal, not a human. Les Brotherstone gives us quite a restrained set comprising of a mirrored forest with flat panel moveable trees, which is perfectly adequate. The performances are all good, at one end of the scale Peter Caulfield as Jack tending towards the tentative in his big number (Giants in the Sky) and at the other, Clive Rowe as the Baker, giving an exuberant and wonderful musical presence throughout. Beverley Klein takes time off from her duties in Anatevka to play the Witch, at first an ugly old crone with crooked fingers, but after shedding her prosthetics and magical powers a rather more glamorous figure, but in both guises wonderfully comic. However, despite the generally good performances, the show never really took flight, I even looked at my watch a couple of times. Compared to the recent Derby Playhouse production the Royal Opera looks quite diminished, not even affording us a beanstalk onstage, but I suppose this is a studio theatre production (although it is quite large actually). Whether you view it as a simple paean to fairytales or a more complex parable of self knowledge, this particular production will live on in my memory only adequately ever after.