I have to confess, it has been so many years until I last went to the theatre. The first show that I ever saw was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Manchester Palace Theatre. It’s a far distant memory as I only recall one thing that happened during the entire show; I think there was a flying car.. right? All the same my experience of theatre is virtually non existent and if I don’t remember a great deal of that first show then the chances are I got bored very easily, which happens regularly with the various films / shows I have to watch, endure and review. That’s where Into The Woods at the The Rep Theatre, Stoke On Trent stepped in by not only surpassing my expectations of a trip to the theatre but high jumped over the bar that I had set for quality performances, good acting and singing within an independent performance.
Into The Woods is one hell of an ambitious production based on the book by James Lapine. The story was made famous from the 2014 film starring James Corden and Meryl Streep. Any film that relies on James Corden’s acting ability is not an oscar winner anytime soon, but Meryl put in a wonderful performance in that movie that kept me watching until it’s finale. With Five Towns and their theatrical counterpart thou however, I have to be honest, I enjoyed it considerably more than the film.
The intricate set design made me feel as thou I was right in the heart of the woods as leaves straddled the stage and wooden trees stood attached to scaffolding in a beautifully constructed multi-level setting.
The original story involves a baker and his wife who wish to have children if not for a witch who has cast a spell upon them. A task that the witch has laid before them must be completed and as a result the couple will be granted a child and off the journey begins as the couple dwell into the woods. The story intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella are transformed into a fairytale mash-up alongside the original story.
With a large cast it’s hard to pick out certain names as the quality of performance on show here was outstanding. There were however a select few performances however that shone brighter than the stage lights and whom fully deserve an honourable mention. Lucy Birkin who plays the witch delivers a menacing performance with a pitch perfect voice, a cackle that rivals any on stage or screen and comedic brilliance all intertwined in easily one of my favourite characters of the show. Abby Evans who plays the role of Little Red Riding Hood delivered emotion beyond just words, her facial expressions, movements and projection came across so strongly that it was easily one of the most impactful performances on stage.
I’ve sat in on many casting sessions with A listers, B listers and many of them couldn’t master the projection and conviction of any given character as Abby embodied on stage during the show. Natasha Dawe is the last name I feel I should mention, although her appearances in the first act were very short and sweet in comparison to a much more involved second act for her character, her vocal ability and conviction of the role shone through a solid performance. Our two lead characters played by Andy Turner and Danii Millward (Baker and his wife) carried the story but accompanied by such a talented supporting cast it becomes a weight that’s easy to carry. It’s incredibly hard to judge their performance. They had their own individual scenes that seemed to just help progress the story naturally but they shined much more brightly when accompanied by other members of the cast. As the baker himself is portrayed very anxious, without conviction and lacking in confidence; I was in fits of laughter as Andy (Baker) had an on-set mishap where his foot plunged through one piece of the set. Usually this would be laughed at due to it being an unscripted event but it made me laugh solely because his character was portrayed in that clumsy, unsure way. A foot going through a piece of the set was a perfect character attribute for the baker even if it was done by accident.
If I had any negatives whatsoever I’d be nitpicking by going as far as saying the audio wasn’t always clear through the sound system on some of the dialogue and the second act was not even close to what seemed like a much more rehearsed and polished package that was the first act.
Musical composition that was superbly executed throughout, choreography that was almost programmed in each and everyone, harmonies that make your ears feel seranaded by angels, strong performances and some wonderful stand out comedic moments (The Prince’s bromance being a personal highlight) has sparked my interest in amateur theatre. Any pre mis-conceptions you had about independent theatre will be left at the door because Five Towns theatre have put on quite the indie masterpiece here and I was very honoured to be there.
Thanks for having me, converting me and driving me crazy for the last 24 hours with the ‘Into the woods’ song playing on repeat in my head!
Review by Sean Evans