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Into the Woods (Menier Chocolate Factory)

The off-Broadway adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical transfers to London

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Into the Woods can be a lavish affair; its fairytale figures stepping off the page to stand before us as people - Cinderella in her ball-gown, the Princes gleaming in gold. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's classic musical makes fantasies real, then lets reality run away with them. Happy-ever-afters crumble and wishes come unstuck.

Fiasco Theatre's stripped-back staging, an off-Broadway hit last year, treats it as theatre instead. Its actor-musicians raid the dressing-up box, grabbing golden slippers and woollen wigs to hop into their roles. The woods themselves are a thicket of flyropes; the giant, an old director's megaphone. Cows are blokes with bells round their necks, and birds are music sheets made to flutter. Gathered round an old piano for a knockabout knees-up, these are actors playing like children.

The point is, we all are - or, at least, we all feel that way. By binning the Narrator, directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfield shift the emphasis away from storytelling. Rather than fictions left to fend for themselves as their world comes crashing down, we get people without a clue how to fend off the chaos. Fiasco reveal the shape of Lapine's book anew: adults running away from responsibility, children losing their innocence, parents cocking it up for their kids.

Rather than bragging lotharios, the two Princes (Brody and Andy Grotelueschen) are imbeciles on hobby horses, while Vanessa Reseland's Witch tries to turn back the clock, restoring her youth but losing her power. When the giant hits the ground, they all stare up at it like lost little kids. For some reason – can't think why – it feels more resonant than ever in Brexit Britain. "So, it's your fault," they spit at one another like schoolkids. "No, it's your fault."

This isn't Into the Woods buffed to its best. Whittling down Sondheim's score, as Frank Galgano and Matt Castle have done, strips back its lushness. Playing at a runaway pace, though it stresses the nimbleness of the lyrics, stops those gorgeous soars breaking out – beautifully in the initial wishes; hysterically in the melodrama of "Agony." Musically, it loses a lot of the texture.

However, Brody and Steinfeld have wound it tight as a guitar string, spinning through tricky split scenes with a breezy playfulness and some of the speediest part-swapping in the world. That lightness lends an off-beat, flip comedy – a gift for its winning cast. Patrick Mulryan's Jack blinks like his brain just went blank and Emily Young's Rapunzel trills like a showy spoilt brat. Jessie Austrian is great as the Baker's Wife: wry and grounded to start, even she's swept away by childish fantasies.

That's what Fiasco are warning against, building to the epiphany of "No One Is Alone." Steinfeld's Baker and Claire Karpen's doe-eyed Cinderella step up as adults. Both stop blaming their parents and become surrogates themselves, taking control and reassuring the young.

That call to face up to reality (eek) spins back into theatre: this most escapist and childish of art-forms. Come the end, the cast urge us back out into the world – "though it's fearful / though it's deep, though it's dark." Right now, it is – and it's no place for children.

Into the Woods runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 17 September

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