Saturday, 10 January 2015

'Into The Woods' at Brixton Ritzy

I've been lucky enough to see two very different stage productions of Sondheim's 'Into The Woods'. Firstly at a small pub theatre in Clapham and then on a big stage at Regent's Park open air theatre which was, in effect, in the woods. That was a bit of a thrill and was the ideal place to stage the show amongst the tall trees blowing in the breeze of a summers night. The productions were very different and, I suppose, that prepared me to see something different in the film, a who-knows-what kind of scenario.

Of course, it's all doubly confusing when so many 'names' are associated with the film - Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Simon Russell-Beale, Frances de la Tour, Tracey Ullman, Annette Crosby and a host of others. With so many 'names' then they've all got to have their own bit of the film and that can be the downfall of a star-laden film but this one really worked. It did (I'm surprised to say!). It was a particular surprise to see Tracey Ullman since I haven't seen (or heard of) her for years, but there she was, right as rain as Jack's mum.

The story takes place beside and inside a deep, dark wood, one of those ancient woods that anything can happen in. And it brings to life all those fairy tales we all know - Cinderella and her cruel step-mother, Jack who sells his cow for beans, the Baker and his wife who want to have children, Rapunzel with her long braids of hair and, of course, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. And, of course, the Witch - there's always a witch. The  Wood is almost a character itself, always there waiting to be discovered again by a new set of characters. It's still waiting.

We see these tales played out in front of us as we follow the tales to the end, or at least the end we know. But the show takes us further and deeper and lets us see what happens after the ending we know. Is Cinderella happy in her new palace and does the Prince still love her? What about the Giant's wife after Jack kills her husband? O yes, tales go on y'know, they don't just stop. Something has to happen next, and that's when the story gets darker. The characters are still wishing and hoping, but for different dreams as they've learned something along their journey. But the Wood is still the mysterious and magical place it's always been. It's still there.

There is joy and tragedy in the film, laughter and tears, mystery and suspense. Will they, won't they? Well, they might. And it's a proper film version of the stage show with no real dialogue, telling the take through the songs and it's really easy to follow.

Meryl Streep is really good as the Witch, both as hag and beauty, and delivered her songs excellently. I wouldn't want to live door to her! Emily Blunt was quite lovely as the Baker's Wife, with a nice presence and a lovely singing voice. The big surprise for me was James Corden as the Baker (who's also the narrator throughout since it's his tale) - I haven't liked anything he's done up to now, but he shone in this film. He's no singer but he did far better than just getting away with it - he made it work for him. It would be good to see him on stage in a musical role after this.

Other pleasing performances were from Anna Kendrick as a feisty Cinderella who talks to birds (I loved those scenes with her talking to the blackbirds) and has a good voice; Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother and salt of the earth; Christine Baranski as Cinderella's step-mother who takes the knife to her daughters' feet while trying on the golden slipper (I don't think I've seen a bad performance from Christine, who's looking good); and, of course, Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Annette Crosby had a small part (and a line) as the Grandmother but it was nice to see her.

Of the younger members of the cast, Lilla Crawford was perfectly feisty (as she's meant to be) as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone was well cast as a very active Jack scrambling up and down beanstalks and trees and causing trouble. Lilla's speaking and singing accent did rather stand out as blatantly American compared to the other actors but that just emphasises her difference I suppose.

It took a little while to get going (and that's usually the case) but it carried me along nicely through the ups and downs of the characters' adventures. I loved it. Go and see it on the big screen while you can.

Be careful what you wish for… and take care in the woods...

My one disappointment was at the very when I looked at the credits and it said 'special effects by' - it should've said 'magic by' and listed the witches and magicians...

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