If there is one thing you need to know about Stephen Sondheim, it is that his musicals are notorious for being brilliant but difficult. Into the Woods – his twisted take on an already twisted collection of fairytales by the Brothers Grimm – is perhaps his most challenging work, second only to A Little Night Music (which no university theatre company in their right mind should ever attempt). With this in mind, Hild Bede Theatre must be applauded for even managing to get the show on stage even though their opening night did feel more like a dress rehearsal.
While there’s a fair amount for the production to improve on over the course of their run, some things were nigh on perfect from the start. The standout performer of the show was, without a doubt, Georgina Armfield as the Baker’s Wife. Whereas everyone else seemed somewhat petrified during the show’s opening number, Armfield was expressive and captivating from the moment the lights went up, and her energy did not falter once over the course of the night. Equally impressive was her onstage husband, Elliot Mather, in his Durham stage debut. Though he was easily overpowered by Armfield’s assured delivery in the opening, he found his footing as soon as he stepped, well, into the woods.
Also fantastic, though less consistent, was Jess Hof as the Witch. Her character wasn’t as fully realised as some of the others and the acting was at times uneven – she may as well have been playing two completely different characters in the first and second act – but she was, without question, a vocal powerhouse. Her rendition of “Last Midnight” was by far the highlight of the show for me, and certainly deserving of rapturous applause from a more vocal audience.
Ed Wheatley must be commended for bringing Cinderella’s (not so charming) Prince to life. While both “Agony” and its reprise lacked the sufficient energy to get the joke across to the audience, he was otherwise spot-on in delivering the punchlines. I would perhaps suggest some more variation in hand gestures – they were hilarious at first but became less and less effective as the night went on.
Joe McWilliam delivered a brilliant, uncomfortably sultry performance as the utterly despicable Wolf. I promised myself that I wouldn’t make any comparisons to the film, but I have to say he may just have done a better job than Jonny Depp and livened up the stage for the all-too-brief minutes that he was on it.
Despite these standout performances, however, the opening night left much to be desired and I feel as though the majority of the issues that the production faced could have been avoided had they had an extra twenty-four hours to practice and polish.
To begin with, the band sounded rather underrehearsed. I am by no means an expert on music, but the score was at times too loud, the transitions were sloppy and it didn’t seem as though the performers and the band were really working together – all problems which can be remedied after an extra couple of band sits.
The technical aspects of the show were also a massive letdown, especially when considering that they had the potential to really kick the production up to another level. The lighting design was simple yet evocative, and the sound effects were easily some of the best I’ve heard in Durham. But it was quite clear after the umpteenth early blackout and late mic that this was their first go at putting the show and tech together. Kudos to both cast and crew for sticking with it and powering through.
Also disappointing was set, especially in comparison to Laura Littlefair’s beautiful costumes. Rapunzel’s tower, for example, was quite cleverly made but the painting was lacklustre. While it does take a considerable amount of time and effort to decorate a structure that large, I do think the payoff would have been worth it. Similarly, the floor-level bedroom was an interesting choice, but its position meant that it was difficult to light well and that most expressions were lost. Finally (though this is more a critique of the staging than the set) I’m not entirely sure why Harry Adair’s Narrator couldn’t have just stayed on stage or at least disappeared behind Rapunzel’s tower when he wasn’t needed. The constant awkward ducking in and out from behind the curtain was quite distracting, and I would have loved to catch glimpses of Adair’s reactions to the story, especially considering how hilarious he was when dragged into the action.
There were a host of other problems: poor diction and timing from supporting actors, clunky choreography made clunkier by the fact that the performers didn’t really know it well, and quite a few missed opportunities to make the audience laugh. Despite all this, Danielle Oliver and her team have succeeded in pulling together a show that has the potential to be great. Now that they’ve done it once, all the team needs is a healthy dose of confidence – I’m so sure of it, I’m planning on seeing it again on Saturday night.