Wednesday, 9 August 2017

EDINBURGH FRINGE REVIEW: Into The Woods at Assembly Hall

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s musical theatre graduates once again provide a sterling effort in their production of Sondheim’s classic, Into the Woods. 

Productions of Into the Woods have boomed since the Disney film’s release, and director Michael Howell’s production is a great effort to find some different angles on a now rather well known piece. Christopher Rowney’s charming Narrator, clad in walking boots and a windbreaker as if he’s been out in the highlands, is not consigned to the side-lines; he conjures the world, never leaving the stage. This works successfully, locating at least the telling of the story in perhaps a contemporary Scotland. Richard Even’s set eschews representational trees, hardly making a concession to the woods themselves at all. Rather, the story is played out in a rather decrepit old cottage, creaky floorboards and crumbling walls galore, used to the full by the cast. It is not always appropriate, but it is a well-executed design that helps to frame a different approach to the show.

The very large cast sound tremendous under joint Musical Directors James Harrison and Robert Wilkinson, as do the impressive eleven-strong band who play Sondheim’s challenging score with style and flair. Very few musicals on the fringe sound this good! It is also pleasing to hear the performers encouraged to use their own accents in both dialogue and song. Some of the large ensemble numbers felt somewhat rushed, particularly the opening number, and EJ Boyle’s choreography occasionally made the stage feel overcrowded and chaotic, which risks losing clarity in what is a busy plot. The well-drilled cast, though, didn’t seem flustered by it at all.

There are vibrant performances from the ensemble cast. Andrew MacNaughton is strong and endearing as the Baker, while Abigail Stephenson’s comedic timing and energetic performance as Little Red cleverly balances precociousness, bloodlust and vulnerability. Katelin Wight’s dreadlocked Rapunzel is pleasingly sardonic, and Lydia Davidson has some touching moments as Jack’s Mother. Beatrice Owens’ Witch shines the very brightest; her performance is astonishing for a performer at such an early stage in their career, and it is possible to imagine her one day holding her own alongside Bernadette Peters. With a powerhouse voice, particularly in her blistering rendition of ‘Last Midnight’, Owens surely has a bright future. 

Howell’s production is pacey and well-humoured, if a little overblown and lacking in some of the finer details. The performance style is sometimes a little too demonstrative and brash, making the usually hilarious duet ‘Agony’ seem bizarrely restrained by comparison, and there is the occasional choice that misses the mark. That said, this young cast should be absolutely commended for their ballsy approach to what is a tremendously challenging work. 

Review by James Andrews 

Rating: ★★★
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