First Night: Grim fairytale casts a sweet musical spell

Into The Woods Donmar Warehouse London
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The Independent Online
CHRISTMAS HAS come early to the Donmar Warehouse. The cast of the latest show at this prestigious address are playing Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and host of other fairtytale characters but this is no pantomime. Instead, it is a smart revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical morality tale Into The Woods.

The star of John Crowley's production is not an actor, but his brother, the designer Bob Crowley. With the audience on three sides of the small stage, this is not the easiest space to design for but Bob Crowley casts a hugely evocative spell. His Hansel and Gretel-style furniture and the beautiful backcloth hint at classic children's illustrations but the tone is richer, darker and stronger.

As the characters set off into the woods in search of their dreams, the backdrop lifts to reveal a dense, lush forest of evergreens rising up to a tiny castle. It is all richly redolent of Grimm's fairytales - highly appropriate, as not everything ends as happily ever after as the hopeful and comic first half promises.

Jack climbs his beanstalk, Cinderella marries her prince and the invented characters of a baker and his wife have followed the orders of a witch and thus been granted a child.

But at the opening of act two, terror strikes. An unseen, vengeful and metaphorical giant brings death and destruction. The rest of the action is somewhat akin to a disaster movie. This is in every sense, a chamber version. The musical director Mark Warman has re-orchestrated the piece for nine players to wondrous effect.

John Crowley's direction is similarly detailed, encouraging a very droll wit from his company but occasionally you yearn for more energy. The cast can all act but some of the voices are not strong enough to really lift the music and hence the drama.

Ironically, the intimacy created makes you feel as if you are watching a well-acted play with music rather than being treated to a full-blown musical. At its best, Into The Woods vividly demonstrates that musicals need not be for children or the childish.