Matthew Xia’s first production as associate artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a bold festive choice and one that is bound to be a crowd pleaser.
After the success of the 2014 film version of Into the Woods and newly-found interest in Stephen Sondheim’s musical it was always going to be difficult climbing the Hollywood beanstalk to those heights. Nothing ever quite compares to the live experience but those who have seen the film cannot help but recall it.
Nevertheless, a combination of Xia’s youthful exuberance and the Exchange’s track record for fabulous family festivities, Into the Woods seemed like a sure-fire winner. Well, almost, but not quite. For a start, on the night I saw it, the production was riddled with technical problems. This uneven production of Sondheim’s twisty fairy-tale has to battle hard against the many evils of modern-tech equipment. There are some triumphs but also some defeats.
Tony and Olivier award-winning designer Jenny Tiramani has done the near-impossible in creating the magical woods where the action takes place. There are some witty ideas – the collapsible granny’s house and golf trolley beetling its way through the thicket work perfectly – but with shuddering hydraulic trees which splutter into life, the setting is often more mechanical than magical.
Xia’s casting works well. The performances along with Sean Green’s musical direction prevent the show from sinking into theatrical quicksand. The Exchange welcomes back the talented Gillian Bevan as The Witch and Michael Peavoy as the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince (both seen in the Manchester staging of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s superior Sweeney Todd). Bevan could give Meryl Streep a run for her money in this role and if she’s not nominated for an award there’s something very wrong with our world.
The Princes (Peavoy and Marc Elliott) are a highlight in the show, and the refrain of Agony (inexplicably cut from the film) is far and away one of the finest parts of the evening prompting some of the biggest laughs.
Ultimately, though, direction lets the whole thing down. The cast are often left to meander around on stage with little in the way of choreography. Put this together with sloppy entrances, unimaginative puppeteering and a lacklustre pace, the show has been turned into a flabby frog of a production.
The whole thing looks like hard work. Watching someone work hard is exhausting and this, in turn, slows down the pace. There is enough in Sondheim’s music to keep audiences entertained with some big laughs dotted around. It’s just that ‘I wish, I wish, I wish’ for a little more flair in the direction and, heck, a little more Christmas magic sprinkled about the place.
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
When: until January 16, 2016