REVIEW: HAODS performers head into the woods for a twisted take on fairy tale favourites

From left: Lisa Falkner, Rachel Farrant, Jack Stone, Chris Dale, Roz Hall and Rebecca Maynard
From left: Lisa Falkner, Rachel Farrant, Jack Stone, Chris Dale, Roz Hall and Rebecca Maynard

Into The Woods, Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, The Capitol, Horsham, April 17-21

On the surface Into The Woods sounds like a simple, fun-filled fantasy romp.

The musical tells the story of a baker and his wife who live in a fairy tale world and go on an adventure to lift a wicked witch’s curse.

The wife cannot conceive a child, so the couple must collect four items to break the spell – a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as snow, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold.

On the way they bump into several familiar characters and the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk become intertwined with their own.

The show promises an entertaining fairy-tale mash-up, full of catchy tunes and magical mischief with a few clever twists on the stories we all learned as children.

And for the first half that’s what it is.

The HAODS performers have a great time singing Sondheim’s music, skipping about, bickering with each other and bringing the OTT characters to life.

There are a few subversive moments. The witch for example, played with real power and presence by Lisa Falkner, becomes somewhat sympathetic in her poignant duet with Rapunzel, ‘Our Little World’.

The two princes of the story, played by Martin Bracewell and Sam Taylor (both of whom are strong singers), are supposed to be charming but come across as rather smarmy, foppish and immature.

Overall however, the various stories play out as you’d expect.

There’s even a narrator in a natty suit (played with an enjoyable smugness by Jack Stone) who appears at key moments to keep everything locked into its fairy tale setting, and to relish the frequently gruesome details of the stories.

But then, in the second half, something strange happens.

Everyone’s had their happy ending but the tale keeps going...and it moves into some very unfamiliar territory.

Without giving too much away, the tone gets a lot darker, traditional fairy tale elements are disposed of and there are some shocking (and grimly funny) twists. Most importantly though, the black and white morality that you’d expect isn’t able to function and the characters start to look at their circumstances in much more realistic ways.

They question whether they are in the right and they struggle to understand the chaotic combination of choices that created their new predicament.

They also begin to consider the potential consequences of their actions beyond simple self-interest.

This shift in their thinking is most viscerally conveyed by Chris Dale and Roz Hall as the baker and his wife.

Chris, often the funniest performer in a HAODS production, puts his comedic skills to good use in the first half as an absent-minded pushover who simply rolls his eyes when his wife joins the quest against his wishes.

But in the second half, as the seriousness of the new situation hits home, the comedy melts away and he shows scary anger, frustration and fear.

Roz Hall presents this too but also highlights her character’s sense of liberation when she gets to break the rules of how a baker’s wife should behave.

Similarly, Gus Quintero-Fryatt (who is always good at blending amusing and expressive acting with lively singing) takes Jack from kindhearted and lovable dimwit to a raging hothead with a lust for revenge.

Rachel Farrant meanwhile begins the play as an optimistic Cinderella with a head full of dreams, but gradually transforms into a much more mature and complex woman as she becomes disillusioned with storybook romance.

Interestingly, Becky Maynard manages to remain likeable as Red Riding Hood during her change, even with her brutal wolf-skin coat and her new habit of flashing a hunting knife at everyone. Yes, it’s a dark turn for the character to take, but there’s something amusing about how quickly and willingly she takes it.

There are hints in the first half of this musical that there is a deeper meaning lurking behind everything, beyond the superficial complexity of mixing several fairy tales together.

But it’s not clear until halfway through the second act just how insightful Into The Woods is.

The final musical number in particular is a revelation, tying all the themes, morals and messages together beautifully while reflecting on the stories we tell ourselves and our children.

The multitude of characters who go through drastic changes, the tangled storyline that blends high fantasy and harsh reality and the intricate nature of Sondheim’s music make this a difficult show to perform.

But the HAODS actors handle it very well.

Abi Hearn as the emotionally damaged Rapunzel, Jane O’Sullivan as Jack’s exasperated mother, Tess Kennedy as Cinderella’s haughty stepmother, Alicia Marson and Becky Munden as her cruel stepsisters, Daniel Chandler as the insatiable Wolf and Kev Summers as the Mysterious Man – they all present their characters as richly and fully as possible with enthusiastic support from all the other secondary and backup performers.

Even director Yvonne Chadwell, who skilfully holds everything together with co-director David Hall, gives an imposing vocal performance that’s central to the plot.

Once again, the HAODS band is on great form as musical director Andrew Payne and co. masterfully deliver Sondheim’s knotty tunes with the accomplished onstage singers.

The set and costumes are elegantly designed as well, capturing that distinctive fairy tale look in a way that’s both subtle and pleasing to the eye.

Into The Woods is not, it turns out, an easy musical to follow, despite its early suggestion that you can expect silly fun in fantasy land.

It’s not all non-stop entertainment either, with a couple of lulls during the more pensive moments and some parts where the strong melodies seem to disappear.

But, like the performers have clearly done here, viewers are encouraged to put in the work and stay on the ball.

By the time the final curtain falls you’ll be glad you did.

HAODS’ next production is Wendy and Peter Pan from August 14-18.

Find out more about Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society at haods.co.uk.

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