A slotted spoon doesn’t hold much soup but it can catch the potato, we learn over the course of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical that folds such classic fairytales as Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood (as well as a glancing reference to Sleeping Beauty) into a parable about faulty parenting and the dangers of wish fulfilment.
But the Open Air Theatre’s new production of this complex musical is full of both meat and potatoes, and turns out to be the most satisfying and revelatory version of this show I’ve seen since Richard Jones’ brilliant London staging in 1990.
Part of the charm, of course, this time is to actually see it outdoors, against the living, looming backdrop of real foliage of the Open Air Theatre, wittily pressed into service by designer Soutra Gilmour, who even creates a high bird’s nest of a treehouse for Rapunzel as part of an actual tree.
Though Sondheim long ago presaged the current fashion for site-specific theatre by creating The Frogs specifically to be performed inside a swimming pool, this is the most magical space I’ve ever seen this show in.
And Timothy Sheader, co-directing with movement director Liam Steel, gives it a dream of a production, literally so – the show is conjured as a child’s fantasy, with the narrator turned into a little boy playing it out in his head.
This may unconsciously borrow a device that was also used for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, while the first appearance of the Witch also suggests another Lloyd Webber show since she actively resembles a mask-less Phantom of the Opera.
But this musical, which is all about childhood and the painful lessons to be learnt in growing up, responds beautifully to this new narrative invention.
There are plenty of flourishes here, some new, some shamelessly borrowed (the mechanised golden egg-laying hen is a direct steal from War Horse). The stunning ensemble cast is one of the finest in town, with Hannah Waddingham – one of the most glamorous of all of London’s leading ladies – counter-intuitively turned into its initially most hideous as the Witch, while Jenna Russell continues to mine a heartbreaking sincerity.
There are also striking contributions from, amongst others, Hellen Dallimore as Cinderella and Michael Xavier as her prince, Mark Hadfield as the Baker, and Ben Stott and Marilyn Cutts as Jack and his mother.
They are accompanied by one of the best bands in town, too, led by Gareth Valentine who makes the nine players, including himself, go far further than their numbers suggest.