Theatre review by Tom Scudamore
If you recall every production Sally Allsopp has directed under the rooftops of the Leighton Buzzard Theatre, they’re all fairytales, really.
Each one is a morality mission in which a lost eccentric wanders into a wood, whether that be an infrastructure jungle (Oliver!) or exotic love labyrinth (The Mikado), strays from the path before being rescued and changed for the better.
Into the Woods cartwheeled towards a beautiful happy-ever-after via the dangerous route because the Advanced Theatre Company, as always, conquered the fine art of telling a story through the acting, rather than crossing paths with the enlightened forests which engulf our childish nightmares.
Journeys don’t start or finish in the forests, they’re a liminal crossing of paths and knotted roots. Be careful what you wish for, though. The 1987 lyric sees Sondheim’s Cinderellas and Little Reds stray off-road and into one another’s stories, muddying morals and restoring the fairy tales’ unpredictable, folklorish bite. It’s a bold, zestful, mythical embodiment of “pure magic” for Sondheim-appreciator Mike McEvoy and granddaughter Evie who, in attendance for adoring the show, interpreted it as documenting “what really happens when all our dreams come true.”
Quite, what begins as irreverent fantasy divulges into a chaotic yet prosaic philosophical jigsaw. The genius? We’re led into the thornbushes with a happy song, but then, once we’re in there, all bets are off. At the start of Act II, for instance, a giant ends up killing the narrators. Ouch. Bye-bye Luke Walsh and Sam Peplow.
Allsopp’s adaptation captured the intimacy, remoteness and surreal nature of Sondheim’s writing wonderfully, making great space of the stage, lighting et al (courtesy of the brilliant Ayre brothers) and at arm’s length from the real material, preferring to let the cast weave their magic on the gamble that they will. And they did, for this is an established ensemble of players, the youthful swoons in the spotlight coming-of-age the realities of their life behind the curtain, that fairytales aren’t all that they’re lived up to be (Cinders can’t even handle her celebrity status), opposite gifted senior thespians who adjudicated the proceedings with the gusto and experience they brought to their roles – Graham Mountford made a fine steward, Jacki Banfield was the grandmother with groove. The composition assisted delivery, here, refined elegantly thanks to orchestral wizard David Allsopp, the melodies rhapsodic so the key vocalists could nail their narrative beats. Enchanting? You wouldn’t miss a surer hand or livelier eye in charge, especially once the live scenery had kicked into gear (whether a tree, clock or door, the craftsmen were so focused and tentative that they deserve either a medal or a massage.)
It was a whirl of pure pleasure that just kept whirling: Sondheim doesn’t write show-stoppers but show-surgers and the elite troupe recognised this excellently.
The spirit of the show survived with the smarter touches sheared off. It’s tempting to only credit the inspired female leads since all of them overcame the challenges of this territory, so assuredly. Emer Downey (the not-necessarily-wicked old crone next door) was a welcome returnee, layering the witch’s cruel heart with subtlety, a unique if not outstanding quality to have in a show curtailed in its own narrative haphazardness. Equally when Lissie Allsopp (the sweet yet knowing baker’s wife) sang Moments in the Woods, peeking playfully around tree-trunks, you could see the lyrics washing her character’s thoughts this way and that – a therapeutic little passage of delicacy in a genre that rarely supports it. This song followed her illicit kiss with the handsome prince, Nathan Rutherford, who we must appreciate for his comic flare and gasp-inducing work in making a light role seem forgiving, his rapport with Will Faulkner (prince-in-white-tights #2) dazzling. Few men have ever smouldered this campily and minced away with their credibility intact; after all, they were “raised to be charming, not sincere…”
This parody may have easily capsized the entire project – of course Andrew Fell had to play the big bad wolf with a jazz-razzmatazz number – but the plot of Into the Woods keeps all of its characters on an uneasy footing: Mark Rutherford made an enigmatically furtive Mysterious Man, Carly Halse was the terrifically “call the cops” ruthless Little Red.
Cinders’ compelling home-life was seamlessly retold, too, seeing ugly stepsisters Jess Allsopp and Chloe King trussed up with gaudy polka-dots and elaborate curls before being blinded by blackbirds. Under the beam and cavort of fierce stepmother Hayley Green and frosty father Steve Knibb, it appeared that only the soulful mother-spirit in the tree, convincingly executed by Helen Hoare, dripped the milk of human kindness. Love, however, is what bound the most distant and distorted of rapports, an inducement of the bond between a pre-beanstalk Jack (an arresting Jacob Townson) and his own mother (a superb Helen McGwyre), even if it had disastrous consequences for their relationship’s mortality.
Essentially to evade death each character had to stand for liberty rather than conformity, self-aware of the role they must fulfil before breaking out of their biological straitjackets as their ideology unravelled, articulated, Helen Mountford succeeding in rejecting the lure of old tradition as Rapunzel. It was Lissie Allsopp, Tilly Jones and Luke Birtles, though, who really thrived on this treacherous ground, nimbly picking their way through Sondheim’s tangled tunes and the mazy myriads.
It’s vigorous fun, rapturous, thrilling entertainment, but its branches catch at your heart. No riddles, though. It was the lullaby Stay With Me and the finale Children Will Listen which classed this piece of theatre as totally sublime and moved the audience most, for when our children fly “the world is dark and wild,” so “stay a child while you can be a child.” Absorbed by the charm of these friends for life in the place where my heart belongs – as an ex-cast member myself from Milton Keynes I’m too poetic in a blazer on a Friday night at the theatre – the fairytales felt timeless here. I’ll keep coming back to hear them be told as long as you never stop telling them, Allsopps.