REVIEW: Into The Woods, Cockpit Theatre ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Into The Woods now playing at The Cockpit Theatre London.

Into The Woods review Cockpit Theatre

Into The Woods
The Cockpit Theatre
26th May 2018
3 Stars
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Director (and, I think we are to understand, here also choreographer) Tim McArthur scored a great success with this production a few years ago in the inventively used space upstairs at Ye Olde Rose and Crowne pub in Walthamstow, which he has made a kind of second home in his frequently brilliant exploration of musical theatre, in works both familiar and barely known.  He also performs in this cast, taking the part of the Baker, and has a biography that fills an entire page in the A4 sized programme.  Theatre needs strong, remarkable personalities like this to thrive.  And McArthur has shown – time and time again – that he can deliver the goods and make magic happen on a threadbare budget.  His recent ‘A Little Night Music’ was a masterpiece of economy and harmony, combined with an arrestingly novel interpretation, finely detailed and superbly managed.  Equally, great talents also must reserve the right that in their experimentation, their risk-taking, they may – on occasion – for whatever reason, miss the mark.

Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods Cockpit Theatre

Not that the look of this show doesn’t suggest that it has something worthwhile to say: it positively trumpets confidence and coherence.  Joana Dias’ set design – all wooden pallet levels and ladders, floating in a sea of woodchip, with rough wooden cladding ringing the in-the-round space – moodily lit by Vittorio Verta, is a bold declaration of an aesthetic vision.  When the cast appear, wearing Stewart Charlesworth’s costumes, however, something else starts to happen.  The stage is packed.  There are 17 of them, and there is hardly any room to move.  And, although they are asked to perform dance steps, they are barely able to do this, without bumping into the wooden obstructions that litter the set like so many dangerous protrusions in a Japanese rock garden.  Now, in a show that depends on swift fluidity between multiple, competing story-lines, this is – at the very least – problematic.  Of course, it looks wonderful, but does it help to tell the story?

Into The Woods at the Cockpit Theatre

Added to this difficulty is the vexed question of the Cockpit’s sound system.  Like some kind of spectral visitation, it comes and goes, unpredictably.  Only Michele Moran’s Witch, with her classically strong technique and clear, beautiful tone and sharp enunciation came closest to being relied upon to be heard for the whole evening, and even she struggled to project some of the mercilessly low tessitura that crops up in her part in the earlier section of the show.  Everyone else has to negotiate the minefield of intermittent audibility as best they may.  Even Christina Thornton, with her Rita Hunter-esque powerful voice, was reduced to near aural disappearance when asked to sing the Giant off-stage.  Clearly, these matters are serious and demand urgent attention from the Sound maestro Gavin Hales, with his team of Julian Gonzalez-Kitzing and Emily Darlington.

Into The Woods Cockpit Theatre Review

But the problems didn’t stop there.  In the serene calm of an expanse of sand, raked into beautiful evenness, with large, interestingly chosen lumps of rocks dotted here and there around the space, one contemplates that it is impossible to observe all the pieces on display from any one vantage point: wherever one is around the perimeter, something always stands – deliberately – in the way of some other, smaller rock, obscuring the view.  Moral?  No one can have complete knowledge – and understanding – of the whole.  Wisdom is partial, and biased.  Insight is imperfect.  And so on.  Those thoughts were omnipresent in my mind, as I sat, trying to see ‘around’ this ladder or that or to guess what was being projected from the other side of an actor on the far side of the timber-bestrewn stage.  Not only that, I got the distinct impression that such ‘imperfect understanding’ was not confined to me alone.  No indeed.

Into The Woods review Cockpit Theatre

Some people in the audience liked this production.  Some said it reminded them of the (recent) film.  Some declared themselves to be pleased by its unusual and atypical selection of unexpected ingredients, and the mixing of several stories as opposed to the telling of only one was, according to them, one of its chief strengths.  Well, these are virtues in the script and score.  On the other hand, when it came to some other patrons, they were unaware of any differentiation in the music – it all sounded the same.  Well, if it did, then that was not really any fault of MD Aaron Clingham, and his tireless band of Becky Hughes (woodwind), Jade Cuthbert (violin), Catriona Cooper (viola) and Natalie Halliday (cello).  They have in this show one of the longest Broadway scores to play, with an immense amount of underscoring to feed into the action, as well as all the sung numbers.  But how helpful was the aforementioned sound system to them?  I think not particularly.  Getting enough time to do proper technical rehearsals is always tricky, and in such cases we do know that some producers prefer to sidestep the pitfalls of amplification and just cast strong singers and – as here – acoustic instruments.

Into The Woods Cockpit Theatre Stephen Sondheim

However, this cast presented a veritable smorgasbord of vocal styles.  We have already explored the contribution of the classically trained contingent.  Most here, however, are ‘musical theatre’ voices, where the emphasis is on telling the story: their individual strengths, however, vary a great deal.  McArthur himself has a clear and full voice; Jordan Michael Todd, however, is winsome as the Narrator; Abigail Carter-Simpson is boldly resilient as a pantomimic Cinderella; Jamie O’Donnell, though, is pale and rather unfunny as Jack; while, Jo Wickham makes an earthy hausfrau of a Baker’s Wife; and Mary Lincoln is a brassy Stepmother, and Macey Cherrett’s Florinda and Francesca Pim’s Lucinda are not very wicked stepsisters; contrastingly – and how – Madeleine MacMahon’s foul-mouthed Gorballs-survivor of Jack’s mother presents a bit of a mystery: how did she get to be there, and to have such a stupidly inept child, lacking all her worldliness?  The production doesn’t even begin to answer that question.  Then again, Florence Odumoso’s Little Red Ridinghood, Ashley Daniels bland Prince/Wolf and Michael Duke’s more heart-felt Rapunzel’s Prince, Louise Olley’s strong and memorable Rapunzel, Jonathan Wadey’s deliberately dodgy Mysterious Man, and David Pendlebury’s officious Steward all seem to hail from different traditions.  With such variety at his disposal, McArthur has cast a very ‘diverse’ team.  The trouble is, with a production that presents so many technical hurdles, has he always had all the time he really needed to meld them into something that makes sense?

Into The Woods Cockpit Theatre

I wonder.  Everyone seemed to be doing pretty much what they want to do, but – like actors will do in such circumstances – playing it safe and not committing themselves to any too precisely or keenly defined ‘position’ that might conceivably clash with what their colleagues are doing.  For people who have never seen the show before, this may not matter too much, but for those who have rather more refined expectations, the crowded and simultaneously superficial feel of much that happens in this production could prove awkward.

It is, as we know, a very good show.  The script and score are worth hearing, in almost any circumstances.  So, assuming the technical sound problems get fixed, I give it….. but only just…. 3 Stars

Until 30 July 2018

Photos: David Ovenden

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