Review: Into the Woods @ The Menier ****

Once upon a time,
In a far-off kingdom known as Southwark, 
There lay a small theatre
Quite close to Waterloo…

Into the Woods tells stories familiar to audiences: Cinderella, Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack just to name a few. Using these familiar faces, it explores new stories and new ways of telling stories in Stephen Sondheim’s revolutionary musical narrative. American theatre company Fiasco stages the story in a similar way: familiar stories told through innovative staging. You can’t help but follow as you all set off together into the woods…

Before the show, members of the cast come round talking to you. This continues as the play starts, with a Prologue of sorts which explains a slight discrepancy. The principal actress is pregnant, yet a crucial plot point is that her character cannot become pregnant after her husband’s family line is cursed by the Witch. It’s a very honest, open style of storytelling, asking the audience to use their imagination, making them complicit. Complicity is at the heart of this production: in other productions, a wood may actually be built for the production, though in the case of Regent’s Park open air theatre, this was not needed!

Into-The-Woods-Menier-563-549x357
Patrick Mulryan as Jack, Ben Steinfeld as the Baker, Claire Karpen as Cinderella, Emily Young as Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

On entering the Menier, you’re hit with a very distinct smell: wood. I thought, for a second, they might have taken the theme a little seriously, building a wood in the middle of a theatre. I wouldn’t put it past the Menier! It’s quite the opposite as it turns out. A wood there is and made out of wood, but comprised entirely of musical instruments. Piano keys frame the stage, harps a ward. It’s a whimsical but also literal interpretation of the ‘woods’. And that’s what is brilliant about this production: everything invites the audience to use their imagination. It’s old storytelling and aware that it is, harking back to a child like sense. Shadow puppets, horses made of sticks, it’s all familiar. A nostalgic style and one which works.

Into-The-Woods-Menier-520-549x357
The cast of Into the Woods. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

It’s an ensemble piece through and through. Ben Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian lead the cast as the Baker and his Wife. Steinfeld has a beautiful tone to his voice, a certain wryness in his delivery but also heart. Austrian brings a real sense of drive to the Wife, one lacking in other productions. Whether it be in her pursuit of her the items or a prince, I believed her passion (even when questionably directed!) Other stand out ones include the best double act I’ve seen off West End: Patrick Mulryan and Andy Grotelueschen as Jack and cow, which evoked audible awwww’s from the audience. Emily Young’s Rapunzel is beautiful, as is her sharp witted Red Riding Hood. Finally, Noah Brady rounds out the honourable mentions doubling as Prince Charming and the Wolf. A very energetic portrayal of the wolf, his Charming oozed charm and is sensitive, clever, well-mannered, considerate, everything that maidens could wish for.

Verdict: a vivid set and familiar style of storytelling bring the world to life before your very eyes.

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