Stephen Sondheim got there first with Into the Woods, but there is plenty of scope for other writers to mine Grimms’ fairy tales and come up with an original musical. David Carey has invented one set in the enchanted forest, the location for a number of familiar stories, and woven something which is flexible enough to accommodate the requirements of this unique company.
Making inclusivity a principle means that the cast numbers 160 and ranges widely in experience, age (eight to 50) and ability. Carey and artistic director Mary Ward had plenty of talent to draw on, though, and a degree of commitment that is scarcely matched anywhere.
The story is that of Hansel and Gretel with interludes and insertions from Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, The Musicians of Bremen and The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces. If the plot is a bit difficult to follow in the first half as all the narratives are introduced this really doesn’t matter: there is always another treat to watch and listen to and eventually everything comes together in time for a happy resolution and the joyful singing of Everafter Days.
The forest is made up of cleverly lit actors as trees decorated with leaves and sometimes doubling as signers. Signing is seamlessly integrated into the action, performed in character throughout and adding to the overall effect rather than distracting from it.
Hansel (an earnest, bespectacled Oliver Ballantyne on my visit) and Gretel (self-possessed Lea Boyce-Zuccotto) are abandoned in the frightening forest, despite the efforts of their nice bumbling Dad (Joseph Morton) by their wicked witchy stepmother. She is brilliantly played by Gemma Rubenstein in fine voice and a gorgeous black dress. The skilled musicians gradually assemble while Rumpelstiltskin (a genuinely sinister Mark Lees) instils horror into his victims with his flashing gold-toothed smile and (literally) stilted walk. There’s a beautiful Rapunzel (Emma Cambridge) letting down several yards of golden plaits from her tower and a delightfully vague queen (Jelena Budimir) dressed like a folksy Queen Victoria.
Among the most impressive set pieces is a Russian-style dance (those princesses wearing out their shoes with prince-partners) led by Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk and involving - babushka doll-style - participants in descending order of size down to a very junior pair of dancers indeed, who all look terrific in their colourful, medieval-style costumes.
I saw the Yellow Company. Chickenshed is now so popular that there are four casts (although the core company of some 30 is constant). Spare a thought for the directors, led by Ward, as each enormous ensemble has its first night. But what matchless ensemble playing.