What happens when you take four Grimm's fairy tales, mix them together, and give them the Stephen Sondheim treatment? Well, you get a musical which entertains and enchants, but also offers a dry, cynical comment on the human condition.
With a book by James Lapine, Into the Woods eschews the notion of the happy ending for a more realistic turn of events. So the main characters - a childless baker and his wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and Cinders - don't actually live happily ever after, but encounter misfortune by the cartload. A vengeful giantess stomps on Jack's house, the baker's wife has an affair, and Cinders discovers that her prince is nothing but a vainglorious philanderer. And borrowing a touch from Grand Guignol, many of the characters meet horrible squishy ends.
It might sound like a bleak vision of the world, but at least it's not a fatalistic one. As Sondheim and Lapine inform us, we can emerge unscathed from the woods (a metaphor for the uncertainties in life) if we pull together. Hence, it's through teamwork that the surviving characters topple the giantess, and improve their lot, not by rounding on each other and apportioning blame.
This neat little musical continues the Donmar's love affair with Sondheim, and under the direction of John Crowley, the performances are oftentimes comic and poignant, even if the action drags a little in the second act. Christopher Pizzey plays Jack as a carrot-topped simpleton in lederhosen, Nick Holder is the chubby, bucolic baker, Sophie Thompson is his ruddy-cheeked other half, and Sheridan Smith is the knife-wielding, streetwise little lass in red.
Most of the songs are easy on the ear, though not in the same league as other Sondheim standards. High points include 'Agony', a whinge-fest for Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes, Jack's 'There Might Be Giants', and the baker's hymning of the quiet, uncomplicated life, entitled 'No More'.
The real treat in this production, however, is visual. Bob Crowley's beautifully painted gauze cloth provides a backdrop to shadow puppets and rises to reveal a wedge of dense coniferous forest, complete with an enchanted castle and giant fob watch. Feathers, glitter and petals tumble onto the revolving stage, lit by Paul Pyant. The costumes, too, deserve a special mention, particularly those of Clare Burt's witch who transforms from a Gaultier-clad hunchback, in a twiggy Eiffel tower of a hat, into a vamp in a black dress. In all, it's a great evening out, and about as close to panto as a Fortnums hamper is to a Tesco turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.