Review: Into the Woods

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I have to admit to being something of a Sondheim novice. I know the composer and lyricist inspires passion in many and he has a very loyal following; after watching this outstanding production, the first major collaboration between the Playhouse and Opera North, I could well become a convert.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine is a darkly comic journey into the realm of fairytales. Familiar characters – Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack (of beanstalk fame) – are brought together for a narrative that veers off into unexpected territory. Sondheim’s witty, intelligent and knowing lyrics explode myths and undermine cliches at every turn as the audience is left in little doubt that there is no such thing as ‘happy ever after’ and that we should all be very careful what we wish for.

The action opens on the everyday setting of a busy primary school as children arrive and settle down to listen to their teacher tell them a story – thereby neatly setting up the role of the narrator. A childless baker and his wife and their meddling wicked witch neighbour kickstart the plot as each of the characters are given a reason to go into the woods.

While exploring the complex relationship between parents and children – which throws up some profoundly moving moments – and touching on some unsettling psychological truths, this is is also a piece full of compassion, joy – and above all, humour. I hadn’t expected to laugh out loud quite as much as I did. The singing is superb, as you might expect from a cast made up of members of the Chorus of Opera North, and the presence on stage of local children adds an extra level of poignancy. Very special indeed.

West Yorkshire Playhouse, to June 25.