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Into the Woods review at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘wonderful’

Amy Ellen Richardson and Alex Gaumond in Into the Woods at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan Amy Ellen Richardson and Alex Gaumond in Into the Woods at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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The common objection to Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s riotous fairytale is well versed. Its first half – in which Lapine conflates Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel – is such good fun it casts a long shadow over the darker, preachier second half. Matthew Xia’s hugely enjoyable production amplifies that distinction – if only because his Act I here is genuinely close to musical theatre perfection.

Jenny Tiramani’s inventive set, with a moving forest canopy and incredible set piece with Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, immediately casts a spell. But it’s the performances here which really captivate – Gillian Bevan a cruel cauliflower-clad witch, Francesca Zoutewelle an earthily rags-to-riches Cinderella and Alex Gaumond’s baker a believably unwilling hero. Amy Ellen Richardson is outstanding as the baker’s wife – funny, knowing and completely loveable as she sets out on her quest to have a child.

In fact, the unfortunate event that befalls her character at the hands (or rather, feet) of the Giant (a recorded voice supplied by Maxine Peake) in Act II is symptomatic of Into the Woods itself. Without Richardson’s presence, Into the Woods loses some of its sparkle and magic. However, Michael Peavoy plays his dashingly awful Prince with Jimmy Carr-like abandon, devouring the best line of the night (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) with utter glee. The excellent live band led by musical director Sean Green grabs the attention too. It’s just that the longueurs and conceits in this three-hour musical become increasingly noticeable by comparison with the brilliance of what came before. Flawed, but still fantastic.

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Matthew Xia can’t quite iron out the problems in Sondheim and Lapine’s musical, but the wonderful Act I is worth the price of admission alone