INTO THE WOODS
Little Theatre Company
at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff
Photo: © GP Photography
“Children will listen,” sings the Witch in the finale of Sondheim's twisted fairy-tale. And, at the Thursday matinée, the stalls are full of listening children, drawn by the Disney movie perhaps.
Their attention is skilfully held by an accomplished company; the production looks and sounds impressively professional.
The set starts out as a triptych on trucks, disappearing to reveal a deep wood – cut cloths and two-dimensional trees that look very at home on these hundred-year-old boards. But it's left to sound and lighting to create most of the magic – the Giantess's demise, the Witch's transformation. The scene in Granny's cottage is appealingly if underwhelmingly done in shadow-play.
Sondheim's tricky score makes huge demands on the singers – without exception they rise to the challenge, and manage to make rounded characters from the story-book figures.
Sarah Pettican is a superb Witch, with and without her hooked nose and chin; she has great presence and a real understanding of the idiom. The two Princes – straight out of Viennese operetta – are a constant delight, too, guying the dialogue just enough, and relishing the Agony. Chris Lidgard is suitor to Rapunzel [Hannah Allwright]; Louisa Strachan's excellent Cinderella is wooed by Simon Bristoe, who also makes the most of the big, bad, sexy Wolf.
The boy Jack - “sunny but vague” - is played by Tobias Smith; his mother a lovely warm characterization from Carla Cater. Sally Lightfoot juggles three roles, including an endearing Granny and a formidable, if faceless, Giantess. And an outstanding Little Red Ridinghood – though not especially “pink and plump” - from Rebecca Perry-Gamble.
The Baker and his Wife – whose longing for a child is the motor for the convoluted plot – are played to perfection by Jamie Redgate and Victoria Tewes – her “Moments in the Woods” is one of many musical highlights.
The genial, suited Narrator, and the melodramatic Mystery Man in beard and tatters, are, maybe meaningfully, doubled by Julian Cottee.
In part two – an ironical happy-ever-after – the story is less Disney, more Grimm. There's infidelity, forgiveness, a morass of moral issues. The Baker's Wife's lusty romps behind a handy tree providing much-needed light relief for the Upper Juniors in the audience.
But some of the best operatic moments are kept for this second act: the “Your Fault” quintet and the “No One Is Alone” quartet both impeccably done.
Rachael Plunkett is Musical Director, with Clare Penfold conducting a fine pit orchestra.
So much to enjoy in Dave Lobley's carefully crafted production of a piece that seems to offer more every time I see it. The bird mobile on the end of a fishing rod, with a careless stage hand on the other end, the country dancing at the close, the Uglies in their undies, the radio-controlled Hen, the Cow on wheels. And there must be a mention for the splendid programme booklet, with excellently atmospheric photographs by Jeff Hooker.