Sondheim’s witty, sideways tribute to Grimm and Perrault might have been written to be presented here on a balmy August evening. Real trees sway gently in the breeze behind Soutra Gilmour’s ladders-and-stairs set with its hundreds of steps and dozens of platforms up to forest-top where Rapunzel lets down her golden tresses. As darkness gathers, nightmare and dream coalesce in James Lapine’s compilation fairytale, narrated by a small runaway boy equipped with a sleeping bag and his story-character toys.
The mysterious wood, from The Wind in the Willows to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, is a life-changing place, the ideal setting for a rite of passage from childhood to the muddle of adult relationships. Lapine’s book intertwines the stories of Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk (and cameo appearances by the Three Little Pigs and Snow White) with that of a Baker and his Wife who are desperate for a child. A Witch who has put a spell on them promises to reverse it if they collect a milky-white cow, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a golden slipper. She is herself the over-protective mother of Rapunzel, locked by enchantment into creaky limbs and fright-face. All is resolved by the interval, only to unravel again thereafter. If the book is too convoluted, losing the clean, brutal logic of the source stories, its overall themes are clear: cherish children but allow them space to discover life for themselves. And be careful what you wish for: happiness may have a dark side.
Director Timothy Sheader and Musical Director Gareth Valentine have conjured a magical production which mixes playfulness with irony and just enough sentiment to bring a tear or two in the finale, "Children Will Listen". The ensemble numbers, especially "Into the Woods" and "Ever After", suggest that this is a company having a woodland ball.
Beverly Rudd is a plump toughie in a red cloak who is nicely confused by the sexy post-Freudian Wolf played by Michael Xavier: "I Know Things Now" she warbles, both delighted and scared. Xavier is equally expressive as a dim, philandering Prince with a tendency to skip. Jenna Russell invests the Baker’s Wife with strength and maternal longing and sings like a dream, while Hannah Waddingham, fresh from her triumph in A Little Night Music, statuesque and commanding when revealed as glamorous after all, is simply stunning as the Witch. She can belt out a song when she needs to, but she can also be subtle and craftily funny.
The young Narrator was played on press night by Eddie Manning, taking the stage with nerveless conviction. His graphic miming of the entire story in the last minutes, explaining his absence to a worried father, was a spectacle in itself. And the Giant - Judi Dench’s booming recorded voice matched with thunderous “footsteps” and an ingenious assemblage of what might have been bicycle wheels, lamps and umbrellas - is fabulous in every sense.
This is one of many celebrations of the composer’s 80th birthday. It does him proud.