Theatre: You can't see the wood for the trees



THE DONMAR's latest show presents Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and host of other fairy-tale characters but it's no pantomime. Instead, it's a smart revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical morality tale. This theatre recently acquired a reputation for star casting with Nicole Kidman but the star of John Crowley's production is not an actor, but his brother, the designer Bob Crowley.

With the audience on three sides, this is not an easy space for designers but Crowley casts a hugely evocative spell. The original Broadway production was smothered beneath a glutinously sweet design but Crowley resists the temptation. His Hansel and Gretel-style furniture and the beautiful backcloth suggest classic children's illustrations but his palette is richer, darker and stronger.

As the characters set off into the woods in search of their wishes, the backdrop lifts to reveal a dense, lush forest of evergreens rising up to a tiny castle. Moodily lit by Paul Pyant, it is all richly redolent of Grimm's fairytale, highly appropriate as not everything ends as happily ever after as the hopeful and sprily comic first half promises. Jack climbs his beanstalk, Cinderella marries her prince and a baker and his wife have a child having followed the orders of a witch.

But terror strikes at the opening of Act 2. An unseen, vengeful and highly metaphorical giant comes calling, bringing death and destruction. The rest of the action is somewhat akin to a disaster movie. Faced with stark choices of love, life and death, who will survive? Sondheim provides his character with some of his most heartfelt music, climaxing with the beautiful quartet "No-one is Alone".

This is, in every sense, a chamber version. The musical director Mark Warman has re-orchestrated the piece for nine players to wondrous effect, bringing out the colours of the score with aching solo cello lines and translucent woodwind wiring. His tempi tend to be slow which sometimes robs the action of drive and momentum but it means that for once you hear virtually every single word of the telling lyrics.

John Crowley's direction is similarly detailed, encouraging a very droll wit from his company, notably Clare Burt's stylish witch. Yet occasionally you yearn for more energy. Some of this stems from voices which aren't strong enough to really lift the music and hence the drama. Musing on her unexpected moment of pleasure with a prince, the baker's wife sings of a life full of tiny moments, before realising that "if life were made of moments, then you'd never know you had one". That's a peculiarly apt description for a production whose intimacy makes you feel as if you are watching a well-acted play with music rather than being treated to a full- blown musical.

Audiences at Sondheim's Company reacted with shocked delight to a musical which challenged them intellectually. Into the Woods is not quite in the same league but at its best, it vividly demonstrates that musicals need not be for children or the childish.

To 14 Feb (0171-369 1732)

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper