Keanna Bloomfield as The Witch – photo from UEA Drama Society FB page

Into The Woods is a Stephen Sondheim musical first staged in 1986. It is a clever blend of several familiar folk tales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. Based on the book by James Lapine it is a clever and complex work and an ambitious project for the UEA drama and music students which they carry off with considerable panache.

The tale is narrated throughout by a ‘Mysterious Man’ (Jasmine Savage) who gets rather more involved in the action as the musical proceeds. All the basic elements of the four Panto favourites are present, but this is portrayed as a serious drama rather than an audience teaser and titillator. 

The thirteen-strong orchestra sit to one side of the performing space, enthusiastically led by Matthew Rhodes. The set has two areas of ascending staging, used to portray numerous locations, as well as some trees and a rising beanstalk. There is even a high window for Rapunzel (Alex Russell) to let down her lengthy blond hair. 

The lyrics bring the original rather simplistic moral tales into a more contemporary and complicated set of relationships, where the lines between oppressor and victim are not so clearly defined. 

Director Lexine Lee has created an ambitious but coherent show with a cast that bring their own quirks to an already diverse list of characters. The Sondheim original has a lot of laughs written into the script, and this UEA cast don’t miss a trick in conveying the jokes and quips in a fast moving libretto. Their movements are characterised just as their singing is, so we see Little Red (Ella D’Arcy Jones) skipping merrily around the stage giving a charming impression of a young girl for whom the wickednesses of the World are as yet unknown.

The baker (George Majin) and his wife (Lillian Carver) are a great double act, giving a good account of their songs. Keanna Bloomfield is a startlingly good witch, with great singing and a magical transition from the hunched evil witch to the powerless parent. Sam Hewitson is just right as the hapless innocent Jack, devoted to his cow Milky White, while Alex Russell is perfect as the winsome Rapunzel, filling the stage with her ethereal voice.

Another oddly effective double act is presented by Greg Harding and Hamilton Brown as the two lovelorn princes. Together they are rather camp as they sing of their loves Rapunzel and Cinderella.

Cinderella’s Stepmother (Charlie King) and two stepsisters (Hannah Furness and Daisy Lyons) do a great evil family combo, with the two sisters milking their sudden blindness for great comic effect. Cinderella is sung with passion and precision by Amber Whitelock. Jack’s long suffering mother is brought to life by Charlie Toney, while Cinderella’s ghostly real mother and Little Red’s grandmother are both given pathos by Briony Randell. The whole cast are kept busy throughout yet I did not spot any missed cues or mistimed lines.

Written in the 1980s Into The Woods reflects some of the fluidity of relationship mores at the time, and these folklore woodland denizens do not quite fall into undying love for a lifetime. At the end of the first act everything seems to be completed, all the happy endings achieved. Jack has brought treasures down the beanstalk, the bakers are expecting a child. Cinderella and Rapunzel have their princes. Needless to say, everything goes wrong in Act Two, when the giants begin to cause mayhem as they search for their stolen goods.

The skilled cast of actors, musicians, stagehands and others have produced a very watchable and enjoyable version of this Sondheim classic. They make it look like great fun, yet even when the script is at its daftest they stay true to their characters, never breaking the fourth wall. Some of the humour needs a bit of knowledge of topical events in the 1980s but the basic concept of remixing several fairy tales gives us an enjoyable romp with vaguely familiar characters, at least to anyone who enjoys Pantomime. This is a great production which has been abruptly curtailed by current events but deserves a re-run or at least a longer run, so that more audience members could enjoy this accomplished production. I feel very privileged to have seen and enjoyed the show which all involved should be very proud of.

© Julian Swainson 2020