If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a rather delightful surprise. Fiasco, a US-based ensemble theatre company, specialise in playfully pared-down productions that put the emphasis firmly on performance, text and story. A few years ago, they brought their wildly inventive account of Shakespeare's unclassifiable Cymbeline, which employed just half-a-dozen actors and a trunk of props, to Stratford-upon-Avon. Now the Menier Chocolate Factory has imported from Off-Broadway their charming stripped-back version of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical about the revealing tropes and psychological truths in fairy tales.
It's a compliment to say that this production feels like the polar opposite of Rob Marshall's glossy, lushly orchestrated Disney film adaptation of the show. The well-known conceit is that characters from various Grimm stories – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, amongst others – set off into the woods in the hope of fulfilling their wishes. But the quest of the childless baker and his wife for the objects (“cow as white as milk.. cape as red as blood” etc) that the witch has demanded before she will reverse the curse of barrenness results in chaotically entangled story-lines.
It's material that could become stifling in its knowingness. But there's a big-hearted improvisatory feel to the proceedings here. A company of ten perform multiple roles, share the narration and play a wide range of instruments (from bucket to bassoon, banjo to autoharp). The arrangements by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle give pride of place to the upright piano, though, from which Evan Rees conjures wonderful sounds. The relative spareness of the textures has the effect of highlighting the knotty, strutting nature of the music and the lyrics, so redolent of nagging wrestles with snarled-up thoughts and feelings.
Indeed, Derek McLane's design resembles the shattered innards of some grand piano – with a forest of ropes upstage that evoke piano wires. The singing voices are rather uneven in quality but the engaging wit and heartfelt warmth of the cast are a handsome compensation. Jessie Austrian is very funny and affecting as the baker's wife, while Emily Young pulls off a strikingly droll double as Rapunzel, struggling to remain rapturously happy as she fingers her idiotic lengths of knitted-scarf tresses and a no-nonsense, less pliable pubescent, Little Red Riding Hood.
Co-directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the production manages to be joyously ingenious (a trembling feather duster, say, as the hen that lays the golden eggs) and teasingly incongruous (Jack's female cow is played by bearded bloke with a baby's bottle for an udder) without seeming too pleased with itself. The depth of emotion in the singing of Claire Karpen's Cinderella and Vanessa Reseland as the Witch almost reconciled me to the psychobabble of the second half when the land is terrorised by the Giant's widow and there's a lot of sermonising about the need to relinquish our selfish wishes in favour of collective responsibility. This will never be one of my favourite Sondheim shows but Fiasco make a spirited case for it.
To 17 September; 020 7378 1713
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