If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.
That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.
This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.
It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.
In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.