I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
A feast of entertainment
How far you would go to attain your heart's desire? It's a question at the core of Into the Woods, the Royal Exchange's Christmas show.
The characters in the musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), are familiar from fairy tales. The difference is that they share the same stage - Little Red Riding Hood encounters Cinderella and Jack (of beanstalk fame).
Natasha Cottriall as Little Red Riding Hood. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
They collide with each other because all their respective quests and journeys lead them into the woods. As the lyrics warn us, we have to go into the woods now and then, we just need to be ready for the journey.
Perhaps the most immediately sympathetic characters are the The Baker (Alex Gaumond) and his wife (Amy Ellen Richardson), who have been cursed to be childless. The Witch (Gillian Bevan) offers to reverse the spell if they can retrieve objects she specifies. The mission that the couple embark on results in much humour but also puts a strain on both their relationship and consciences.
Amy Ellen Richardson as the Baker's Wife, Alex Gaumond as the Baker. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
The production, directed by Matthew Xia and designed by Jenny Tiramani, is full of wonderful stage effects. The first appearance of Red Riding Hood's grandmother is a particular highlight.
Michael Peavoy, who plays Cinderella's prince, also gives a beguiling performance as the wolf. He dances around the stage, wearing not much more than a thong and tail, with barely concealed relish at the prospect of his next meal.
Michael Peavoy as Cinderella's Prince & Francesca Zoutewelle as Cinderella. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
The actor also delivers, in a duet of the song Agony with Marc Elliott (who plays Rapunzel's prince), what is, for me, the musical highlight of the show. Gillian Bevan's performance of Last Midnight is also a high point.
Gillian Bevan as The Witch. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
Sondheim's rhymes almost justify the price of the ticket alone. I particularly enjoyed the rhyming of 'ask it' with 'basket', amongst many others.
Into the Woods must be one of the most enjoyable shows you can see about childlessness, betrayal, deceit, bullying, disappointment and the harsh retribution characters in fairy tales endure. The genius of Sondheim and Lapine's is to wrap these themes in a wonderful night of musical entertainment. This production sustains both the pace, pathos and the pizzazz until the finale. It is at the Royal Exchange until 16th January, including some performances on Sundays.