Into the Woods

The thing about putting on a classic piece of musical theatre is that you’re going to get a range of audience.  There will be those that love it – a past production, or the film.   Then there are those like me that are completely new to it.  And I strongly believe that any piece of theatre should stand on its own merits, so coming to it anew is a good place to review.  This version of Into the Woods sees the Royal Exchange transformed into a tree-filled forest, and is directed by Associate Artistic Director Matthew Xia (who also runs the Open Exchange, set up to support the next generation of theatre makers).  The Royal Exchange has a strong track record with musicals.  Little Shop of Horrors was well received, and I queued for returns on the last day of the outstanding Sweeney Todd two years ago after hearing amazing reviews.

Into the Woods turns out to be a superb production that is strong dramatically, musically and in the way it uses the intimate Royal Exchange stage.

The first half is the fairy tale.  Staging is excellent with three telescopic trees rising and falling to evoke the locations, the top of the Exchange filled with a canopy of branches to give this production a real feeling of height.  It’s beautifully lit, with a live band on the first gallery providing the music.  The cast of eighteen bring the full range of fairy tale characters to life – Cinderella and her family, the Baker’s family, the Witch and Rapunzel, Jack and his mother, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.  The stories flow and collide, the songs emerge effortlessly, and each conflict is resolved.  This is a thoroughly engrossing tale where every story and every character is important.  It’s a simple premise – the childless Baker and his wife must source four items to break a spell stopping them having children.  The first half is so full of clever direction, including a stunning grandmother/wolf scene.

The second half is real life.  ‘Happily ever after’ gives way to realism, each character facing their own challenge.   The staging is more bare, the lighting is darker, the music is tighter and it’s a bit slow at times, but still there are memorable scenes and there is well paced humour.  You could almost feel the Royal Exchange shake as the giant approaches.  It’s good, but could have been better with a stronger theme, rather than just the absence of what we saw before.  Nevertheless the acting and voices continue to be of the highest quality.  It is a remarkable achievement to assemble such a talented cast whose voices and movement complement each other so well.

So overall an excellent performance, brilliantly cast with fantastic voices and acting, and clever direction.  This feels like the Royal Exchange at its best and is strongly recommended.

photo: Jonathan Keenan

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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