FEATURE: Into the Woods – Digital Theatre Download

I’ve never been to the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park (a bit too parky for me, I’m willing to risk The Globe with its little bit of roof but completely en plein air nooo!) or seen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, so when I got an email about Digital Theatre, who had it available for download I was intrigued enough to go for it. It features among others; Michael Xavier, Hannah Waddingham, Simon Thomas, Helen Dallimore and Jenna Russell, each seasoned West-End performers, and this was a production that received almost universal acclaim.

Sondheim’s musical interweaves the tales of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella among others. The first half ends with a “happily ever after” conclusion, but this isn’t fairy tale sweet, it is something much, much more thoughtful and the second half is psychologically dark. They say that Sondheim isn’t easy and at times during this, despite the fantastic cast, my interest waned. After the interval there is a run of gloomy, and it must be said, rather pedestrian tunes. Call me old-fashioned but I think if you’re gonna call it a musical then music should be the most important thing. The fault however is not with this production, and for the most part not with the cast, but rather with the piece itself.

Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas (above) were absolutely at the sublime end of the performance scale and arguably had the most memorable number of the night “Agony”. Xavier also resurfaces in the second half as Cinderella’s voracious Prince after his demise as the scary/sexy “Big Bad Wolf ” (below).

I was thoroughly unimpressed by Ben Stott (above) as Jack – neither his acting or his singing held my interest. Each time he appeared I was in turn either irritated or willing him to get off.

Jenna Russell (above) is touching as the Baker’s Wife, seeking a quick thrill with a randy prince once her dreams have been granted and her husband has given her the child she wants.

The fantastic Hannah Waddingham transfers from Gnarled Witch to slinky momma (above) during the piece and sings with power and quality as she always does.

Beverley Rudd (above) as the plumptious Red Riding Hood is excellent.

As well as my interest waning at points, visually there are problems too. The setting of the Open Air Theatre on paper should be perfect, and you can’t deny the atmosphere here, but the sheer size of the set (even on-screen) and the abundance of greenery sometimes swallows up the action. (I know, I know, it’s Into The WOODS! but there are just too many woods!!) The cast also seem to be thinly spread around the four storey stage structure and keep getting lost in the gloom. The costumes, though for the most part really cleverly done, are in a colour palette that at times seems like camouflage. I read a reviewer at the time who hoped that they were feeding the cast carrots! The audience need them too.

There are other great visual treats though, like when the Wicked Witch climbs up Rapunzel’s hair and the brilliantly realised “Giant” voiced by Judy Dench. All in all the highlights make you forgive the low points and overall the quality of the filming was excellent. It doesn’t capture the thrill of live theatre but it allows you to see sold out productions that you wouldn’t normally get a chance too – and that can never be a bad thing!

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