Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tangled Wood Tales: Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Going to Regent's Park Theatre gives me an insight into the days when attending plays, and especially operas, was nothing to do with the performances. Then, showing off one's clothes and greeting friends, enjoying the glamour of gilded boxes and velvet curtains was the point.

Like most people I go swaddled against the weather, but there's always a smattering of debs in sandals with swains and picnic baskets. I don't expect to see anyone I know. It's not so much the fairy lights swathing the bar area as the natural setting that gives a sense of occasion - the way the trees sway and birds swoop across the stage or call from the foliage at inappropriate moments. Watching the audience climb giddy heights and improvise sun hats or snuggle into blankets is half the point.

So I didn't mind that Sondheim's musical was a disappointment. The programme tells me that he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, a musical I saw when it was first staged in London and which set the standard, for me at least, for musicals I've seen since. There's a the same cleverness in the lyrics, delivered in recitative style. but none of the power of songs like 'Tonight, Tonight', 'Maria' or 'America'

I'm not keen on adapted fairy tales, although here they are ingeniously woven together to illustrate a single theme: that individual quests are realisable only with the help of others

The first half's entertaining, with archetypes enlivened, such as a greedy Red Riding Hood and two campy Lawrence Llewlwllyn-Bowen lookalike princes. Cinderella, ugly sisters, a spendidly wicked witch and a Rapunzel, Jack and his cow and a baker and wife wanting a baby ring the changes. A boy in school uniform frames the action but his role is obscure.

The costumes and stage design, by Soutra Gilmour very good, as are the cast, with Hannah Waddingham as a charismatic witch.

The second half would hardly matter except they all have to band together to defeat a giant, brilliantly staged as hands and a head appearing from the trees heralded by ground-shaking footsteps. What a good idea to have it 'voiced' by Judi Dench!

The giant, and the scene where Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are cut from the wolf's stomach are the highlights of an otherwise mediocre musical. But even a so-so play here can be as pleasant as a West End hit!

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