Entering the Bute Theatre we are immediately aware of being in another world, one where footsteps have been imprinted into the round, vast white drapes enclose the space and sheets, clothing – and a baby in a basket – hang from the ceiling.
Our woods has more of a canopy of linen than leaves and from the “branches” are items of clothing, more akin to washing lines or clothes rails. Hooks descend from these rails for the fairy tale characters to hang their outer costumes and from which the central motif, a baby’s basket, is suspended.
The audience members face each other across the space on two banks of raked seats down either side of the rectangular theatre space, all enclosed in those floor to ceiling white drapes. On each side there is a gap between the seats and into the drapes so the players can enter and exit. It is this space the interwoven well-known tales are played out as Sondheim takes a number of different storylines and knots them into one with the common theme of each having to enter the symbolic woods to pursue a separate goal. These cover a wide range of wants, needs and desires and all require moral decisions, difficult choices, or at least stepping into uncertainty.
It is literally a tale of two halves. The first is that interweaving of traditional stories until they all reach a “happy” ending. After the interval the stories are all taken to “what happened next” scenarios with philandering princes, a bored princess, the giant’s wife seeking revenge for the killing of her husband and so forth. While even the well-known fairy tales are shown with the unpleasantness and grimness (no pun intended) that tends to be softened in most retellings, in the second half that darkness is even more evident.
In this production we do not have a separate Narrator as such and so the characters tell their own stories with the Baker and his wife, played by Tom Vincent and Kyleigh Grim, in the first and unifying tale as Sondheim explores parenthood. Both these young actors give polished, sympathetic performances with great chemistry between them and the rest of the ensemble.
The other unifying role is the strongest character in the musical, the Witch, and Melissa Bayern is outstanding with an emotionally fuelled performance whether as the wizened crone or glamorous she-devil. Her strong singing voice was at its best with Stay With Me and Last Midnight. Emily Stawicki is the locked-in-the-tower Rapunzel with the long flowing hair, up which the Witch and her suitor prince climb.
Daniel Hartshead is portrays Jack as a simple but loveable boy with daft ninja moves and desperation for a friend, thus his attachment to his cow Milky White. Luke Hereford and Ronan Nadin are Cinderella and Rapunzel’s dashing if slightly fay princes. Ronan Nadin is also a hoot as the Wolf while Luke Hereford also takes the role of Mysterious Man and a stint as Jack’s cow!
Emily Carter played a charming Cinderella and Lorna Dennehy a feisty no-nonsense Little Red Ridinghood with flair of comedy. Cinderella’s stepmother is a glam and sassy Carlyne Gibb with Emilia doubling roles as one of the ugly sisters and Sophie Pinsent the other, along with playing Granny. Catlin Mckee is full of fun and energy as Jack’s worldly mother.
The show is full of inventiveness in the hands of Steven Dexter and the set and costume designer Isabelle Wilkes and a clearly hard-working behind the scenes production team. There is so much clever and entertaining theatricality from the way transformation of Granny’s bed, the earthquakes of the giant’s steps, the way clothes rise and fall from the “branches” to the gimmicks such as the Harp being of the alcohol form in a can.
The eight-person band, under the musical direction of Joe Hood, was a delight with Sondheim’s score in what is probably his most popular musical, here gloriously realised through imaginative design and direction, fresh yet impressive young talent and impressive ensemble working on either side of those flowing white drapes.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Until December 12
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Originally Directed on Broadway by James Lapine
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Photography: Simon Gough
Do you know about Arts Scene Wales? Please visit:http://www.asiw.co.uk/about-us