THIS is as much Stephen Tearle’s Into The Woods as Stephen Sondheim’s wickedly witty Broadway show in a fusion of York and New York imaginations.
Sondheim rooted his 1987 Broadway musical in a grown-up twist on the Brothers Grimm stories that casts a new light on such familiar fairy-tale frequenters as Cinderella (University of York student Rebecca Jackson); Beanstalk-climbing Jack (Jack Hambleton); a skipping Little Red Riding Hood (CAPA College and PQA York student Missy Barnes/Rowntree Players panto regular Mollie Surgenor); Rapunzel (Juliette Brenot); Snow White (Elizabeth Farrell) and The Wolf (Ryan Richardson, looking not unlike Sam Smith in their Gloria tour get-up).
James Lapine’s book for Sondheim’s songs centres on the plight of the Baker (Chris Hagyard) and the Baker’s Wife (Perri Ann Barley), a childless couple seeking to lift the curse placed on them by a once-beautiful Witch (a towering performance from Pascha Turnbull).
Venturing into the woods, they must search for the ingredients that will reverse the spell: a milk-white cow (Erin Greenley, in white jeans and boots), hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel); a blood red cape (from Little Red Riding Hood) and a slipper of gold (from Cinderella).
Here they will encounter the fairy-tale folk, each on a quest to fulfil a wish, and into the story come the likes of Cinderella’s Prince (Sam Richardson), Rapunzel’s Prince (Kristian Barley), Cinderella’s Mother (Rebecca Warboys) and the Ugly Sisters, Florinda (Ali Butler-Hind) and Lucinda (Morag Kinnes).
Sondheim steers a path away from pantomime into terrain altogether darker, behaviour worsening, human foibles bursting through, enchantment turning to disenchantment, living unhappily ever after until the denouement. Steve Tearle nudges the playing style back towards panto, without changing the fruitier post-9pm-curfew content.
He also introduces a young ensemble to swell the company ranks to 50, playing woodland birds and forest dwellers in pointy ears, who gather at Tearle’s feet in his role as string-pulling Narrator and Mystery Man too. He plays free and loose with the script, interjecting adlibs in his north-eastern accent in the manner of a Dame Berwick Kaler pantomime.
Sondheim’s style is deadpan, even noir, as well as being witheringly witty, as paraded in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street too. Tearle’s style is broader, tongue pushed into the cheek in pursuit of “highly camp fun”, typically expressed in the performances of Richardson and Barley’s Princes and Melissa Boyd as Jack’s Mother, although Missy Barnes’s Little Red Riding Hood on Thursday night had something of the Wednesday Addams about her.
In a “big” joke, Helen Greenley’s diminutive Giant’s Wife arrives in massive platforms and a startlingly deep, echoing, discordant voice – compared by one audience member to Mr Blobby – that brings to mind the Wizard Of Oz at the moment he is exposed as a fraud.
Hagyard and Perri Ann Barley play it closest to Sondheim’s tone, while Pascha Turnbull, regularly cast as “larger than life, formidable women”, takes on the bewitching role she has “yearned to play for many years”, combining the show’s most powerful singing with her suitably domineering presence. Not for the first time, Jack Hambleton stands out as one of York’s rising talents.
Scott Phillips conducts his musical forces with glee and oomph aplenty; Adam Kirkwood’s rainbow palette of lighting complements Tearle and Faye Richarson’s woodland setting with its camouflage gauze and three rotating scaffolding towers, forever on the move, whether occupied by Jack or Rapunzel or whoever.
The fabulous costumes, designed by award-winning Ashington fashion designer Paul Shriek, go with the many shrieks that pierce the sylvan night air.
Experimental, experiential and wildly ambitious, amber-gambler Tearle’s Into The Woods heads deliriously into the weird. It certainly brings a smile, but would the late Sondheim take Tearle’s tribute as a compliment? We shall never know.
Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.