Sunday, February 01, 2009

Into the Woods at the Gatehouse

One of my all-time favourite musicals, Into the Woods first came to my attention back in the early 90s, when the Broadway production starring Bernadette Peterswas televised. I've watched that version many times over, and know the London cast recordingoff by heart, but had only ever seen a bad amateur production live on stage. As is often the way with Sondheim, the combination of subtle dark humour and a complex score makes Into the Woods a challenging prospect for even the most talented professional company, and when I heard it was to be revived on the London Fringe, it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I booked tickets.

Last night was the penultimate performance of the 2008/9 revival, and we trekked all the way up to Highgate (via the British Museum) to see it. The main reason we went was to support my good friend Dominic Brewer (pictured here on the left), whose performance as the Baker has earned rave reviews. Dom and I worked at Waterstone's together in 1998/99, and bonded over our mutual propensity to burst into song at any opportunity, particularly during booze-fuelled Christmas shopping evenings. He's been a jobbing actor for a few years now, but I hadn't seen him in a lead role since he went professional. The Baker and his wife are the central characters in this clever ensemble piece, crossing paths with other fairy tale characters in the woods during their desperate quest to reverse a family curse placed upon them by a malevolent witch.

The Gatehouse production breathed new life into an established musical, resisting the temptation to emulate previous interpretations (which is exactly what made the aforementioned amateur one so painful). I was so overjoyed to hear beautiful diction all round and not a trace of that Americanised singing which so often infuriates me in West End shows these days. Very wisely, they had stripped out some of the weaker songs, and kept the dialogue zipping along so that it never dragged. I'm not just saying this because he's a mate, but Dominic gave a storming performance alongside his opposite, played by Rachel Bingham. The on-stage chemistry between them was electric, and despite knowing the score so well, I was regularly moved by their very individual and fresh delivery. Even Ant, who had been initially reluctant to see the show again, came away genuinely impressed and enthused; it had been a brilliant and memorable evening's entertainment.

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