16 June 2007

Into The Woods – Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Friday 15th June 2007

This has to be my favourite Stephen Sondheim show ever, so it really can’t fail to tick all the boxes with me. And yet….and yet…. there seemed to be something lacking from this production. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was –a certain lack of “sparkle” perhaps, or a sense of magic. OK, it was the first preview and maybe the cast hadn’t really got into their stride, but parts of this felt very pedestrian and somewhat laboured. Maybe the production is a bit too reverent – with something like this, I think you can get away with playing around and having fun, poking fun at the fairy-tale genre and sending it up, a bit like a really good panto. Certainly I expected something more from the director, Will Tuckett – an established choreographer and dancer with the Royal Ballet. Perhaps that’s what it is – sometimes these people just can’t “cross over” from one discipline to another. Maybe Tuckett should stick with what he knows best – choreography rather than direction. There were many opportunities for dance and “movement” which went completely for nothing. Certainly Tuckett can’t group people effectively, preferring the straight line, the semi-circle and the amorphous “clump”. Halfway through I thought of the great fairytale illustrator Arthur Rackham and how well he grouped characters in his wonderful drawings – perhaps I’ll send Mr. Tuckett a book of his illustrations. Lots of opportunities for “business” were missed completely, and although I loved the mechanical hen running across the stage, loathed the inclusion of a guide dog for Clorinda and Florinda, thought the fact that Cinderella’s birds came down the chimney while there was a lighted fire in the grate absurd and didn’t think much of either Milky-White splitting in half or Cinderella’s Prince galumphing around with a horse’s armoured headpiece held in front of him to represent his steed. In order for the potion to work, Red Riding Hood’s cape MUST be fed to the cow (and wasn’t), and neither should Jack be carrying his sack of coins when he says to the Baker “I will go and get more money”. Mr. Tuckett obviously hadn’t paid enough attention to the details of the script, and I thought that the changes required to the characters’ houses between the acts were not nearly marked enough. Jack’s mother would have spent money on gaudy stuff from the fairytale equivalent of the Argos catalogue when becoming rich rather than just buying a tasteful cuckoo clock and some dangly ear-rings and Cinderella’s house became Cinderella’s castle with the very lazy addition of a carved royal crest above the fireplace.

Lighting was rather unsure throughout the entire evening – much seemed very underlit and a lot of the singers seemed to be either singing completely out of their spot or unsure of where it was going to be. The stage was framed with mirrors and only once did I see these being used – Cinderella’s Prince used one to check his hair. Mirrors reflect the unvarnished truth and Tuckett could have made a nice point here – a lot of characters in this show are self-deluded and only find truth and reality in the second act. And mirrors do feature in a lot of fairy stories, either as a plot device or a character (or both). And only once did I catch the mirrors being used to enhance the lighting – and that I think by mistake – when a spot beam seemed angled precisely to catch on the edge of one of the mirrors and bounce to a different angle on the floor of the stage.

Gary Waldhorn seemed rather to be going through the motions as the Narrator and would sometimes appear right in the middle of the action – surely the point of having a Narrator is that he takes a role completely outside the story (even though in this show he does eventually get dragged almost literally into the story he is telling). Certainly I think he could have been given a rather better costume – he looked like he’d just strolled in off the street in an unpressed jacket and trousers that had obviously been bought in his slightly slimmer days. And please, makeup designer, get someone to put some powder on his bald bonce so that he doesn’t look like a big pink shiny easter egg wandering around the stage.

Gillian Kirkpatrick seemed somehow better as the scullerymaid Cinderella than Princess Cinderella, lacking innocence and a certain emotional warmth and certainly not singing with the brilliance that Cinders should possess. “On The Steps of the Palace” is incredibly difficult to sing but I have heard other actresses manage this far better. I thought Peter Caulfield made a splendid Jack, although his diction was sometimes a little muddy. The director, however, should point out to him that when holding a chicken, its head should face the audience, not its arse, even if it does lay golden eggs. Anne Reid did her best with the small part of Jack’s Mother, although I did think it might have been somewhat lazy casting. It’s a difficult role – there’s not much singing but what there is, is quite tricky and wordy and Im not totally convinced Ms. Reid could get her teeth round some of it. Cinderella’s Stepmother is another of these roles and Elizabeth Brice failed on all counts. No projection to her dialogue, muddy diction in the music and generally not nearly wicked enough. Louise Bowden and Lara Pulver did their best with the roles of her awful daughters and certainly looked and sang the parts, but again came over as just too much on the silly side rather than being genuinely spiteful. When the script says “slap”, girls, it means “slap” and not “dab at ineffectually”. Martin Nelson was practically inaudible during the Mysterious Man’s dialogue but then pulled an astonishingly splendid voice out of thin air for his one duet. If he’d bought this out from under his hat during his dialogue, it would have made the role seem much more prominent.

Suzanne Toase was a wonderful Little Red Riding Hood straight from the Ridings of East Yorkshire, even though she is obviously well over the playing age of the part. Great line delivery and a nice awareness of the latent sexuality that the story of Red Riding Hood and the wolf is really all about. Linda Hibberd, taking the three small parts of Cinderella’s Mother, Granny and the giantess was disappointing in all of them. She failed to appear on stage in the first (when a ghostly presence is really required, was all but inaudible in her dialogue and not nearly bloodthirsty enough in the second and voiced the latter without any real feeling. Also disappointing was Christina Haldane as Rapunzel – sure she can sing the coloratura proficiently enough but seemed physically uncomfortable with the acting and failed to bring any kind of projection to her dialogue. What bits I could hear were so overlaid with Indiana accent as to make them impenetrable.

Byron Watson should have been playing the Steward but there were apparently some last minute problems with casting and he took the role of Cinderella’s Prince instead – and showed that he wasn’t really capable of doing so, showing no panache whatsoever, little charm, minimal sex appeal and absolutely no feeling for dialogue. He also made a rather effete Wolf. The chap who took the role of the Steward (didn’t catch his name) did an incredibly good job with a very minor part and made far more impression than this character ever does – he’s probably the best Steward I’ve ever seen. I’ve always thought that the role of Rapunzel’s Prince is the inferior of the two princes, but I’ve seen a couple of good amateur performers make this role one of the funniest in the show and Nic Greenshields also managed this with a great feeling for the throwaway dialogue, impeccable comedy timing and mugging about the stage wonderfully.

Clive Rowe as the Baker was singularly unimpressive in the role and seemed incapable of bringing any kind of vocal strength to his part. He also showed a very annoying tendency to flap his hands about when any kind of emoting was required. Beverley Kline was fabulous as the Witch, scuttling about the stage like a bedraggled old hen in Act One but seemed somehow to lose her focus on the part both in terms of characterisation and delivery of dialogue after her transformation back into a glamorous woman. Much of the time, her singing was rather too “Opera” than the role actually demanded and her delivery of “The Last Midnight”, which should be a bravura showstopper and wasn’t, meant that I was left with the impression of a slightly defective firework – sometimes giving out a loud “phut” and a damp puff of smoke rather than expected shower of pyrotechics. The problem is that Bernadette Peters, who created the role on Broadway, remains the definitive Witch for me and nobody has ever even come close to the perfection of her portrayal. Yay Bernie!

All the honours of the evening go to Anna Francolini’s stunning and practically faultless portrayal of The Baker’s Wife. Her dialogue was spot on throughout the entire show, her diction impeccable, her characterisation brilliant, her comedy timing perfect and her musical delivery without peer – much as it pains me to say this, she was an even better Baker’s Wife than Imelda Staunton, which is compliment indeed. The role could have been written for her, in fact.

A rather uneven evening, in summary, with some surprisingly poor casting for the Opera House. And for pity’s sake – this is a brand new performance space and STILL there was insufficient leg room!
What the critics thought:

No comments: