Theatre: Into the Woods Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
Into the Woods

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester

Is there a better recent musical than ? Not only is the basic idea brilliant, but so is its execution. A baker and his wife are childless. The witch next door ("I don't like that woman" the baker says mildly) offers to solve their problem. But they must obtain for her a red cape, a milk-white cow, a golden slipper and hair the colour of corn. So off they go into the woods, to invade the narratives of Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel, who just happens to be the witch's daughter.

These woods are dark and deep, places of confusion, challenge and self- discovery, like the Forest of Arden. The dilemma of the baker and his wife (they are not named), is like that of Barak and his spouse in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. To what lengths will they go to beget their own progeny? Does the end justify the beans they give Jack in return for his cow?

Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's story is a critique of go-for-it- ruthlessness, of selfish individualism. As the crisis deepens in Act Two, and the baker's wife is killed by a vengeful giant, the cast sings that "no one is alone", and discover that no one can fairly be made a scapegoat for what has happened. There is such a thing as society.

But is also about parent-child relations. "Careful the things you say/Children will listen" sings the witch-mother, whose imprisonment of her daughter predictably fails to stop her marrying one of the two twittish princes. And it is about the cruelty and darkness lurking in so many popular fairy tales. It has all the wit and marvellous sets of rhymes we have come to expect from Sondheim and his partners. It has a scintillating score. But it also packs a genuinely powerful moral and emotional punch.

All this is admirably realized in Paul Kerryson's committed and carefully detailed production at the Leicester Haymarket. It is the latest in the impressive series of Sondheim revivals he has staged there since 1992. It's a complex work to stage, but the Haymarket production meets all its demands with bewitching ease and confidence. Kathryn Evans makes an entertaining witch, and Linzi Hateley shows immaculate style and timing as Red Riding Hood. But this is above all an ensemble show, with a cast full of vivid characters.

Kerryson missed a chance, though, of turning the two gormless princes into scions of the House of Windsor. With lines like "You can't count on a royal family to solve your problems", turns out to be topical as well as mythical.

Anthony Arblaster