It’s 21 years since Stephen Sondheim took English Pantomime by the scruff of the neck and throttled it into a self-styled morality play called ‘Into the Woods’.
If nothing else, the current production at the Landor theatre highlights the age of the material, and the somewhat lengthy exposition necessary to tell the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk before the interval - after which the plot thickens and the cast thins as many of them are picked off by a marauding giant whilst blaming each other for collective and individual misfortunes.
It’s intended as a metaphor for the disintegration of society, but the jury’s out on whether Sondheim was presenting an original metaphysical deconstruction of America at the end of the 20th century, or smoking crack.
The tedious first half needs pace which the cast couldn’t deliver on Friday since they were struggling with too-recently-arrived costumes and a clever oversized bookshelf of a set which demanded mountaineering feats whilst singing in a hoop skirt and minor key.
An announcement asked the audience to treat it as an open dress rehearsal and on that basis, it was promising. It also started over half an hour late which allowed the opportunity to appreciate what a scrofulous pub the Landor really is, perched on the edge of an edgy housing estate. It’s a shame, because the theatre upstairs has a great reputation which doesn’t percolate down to the bar.
The lead characer of the Witch is in disguise for the first half - and Lori Haley Fox was the only cast member to use a strong American accent so she appeared initially to be Ruby Wax in a burka (not in itself an unattractive prospect) but after the ‘transformation’ revealed blonde streaks and an overbite unfortunately reminiscent of Julia Davis in Nighty Night.
Other performances which will be even stronger after the initial hurdles included Ryan Forde Iosco and particularly Luke Fredericks as the swashbuckling but shallow Princes, the latter clearly relishing a second outing in knee-length boots after his stint as Rolf the boy Nazi in Sound of Music, and with a lovely voice.
It’s notoriously hard to sing Sondheim because the lyrics are so often truncated or interrupted, but Sue Appleby as Cinderella and Leo Andrew as the Baker overcame this particularly well, and Andrew‘s ‘No One Is Alone’ had great resonance.
One of the best quotes from Into the Woods is ‘nice is different than good’.
This is a nice production.
Talking of which, Into the Woods is the featured musical for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre opening on 5 August 2010. In the meantime, the Landor production continues to 17 October 2009. Tickets £12-15, box office 020 7737 7276 or visit website.