Northern Ireland

Review: NI Opera's Into the Woods is a thrilling, moving night of entertainment

NI Opera's production of Into the Woods features, left to right, Brigid Shine, Catherine Digges, Paddy Jenkins, Jolene O'Hara and Kelly Mathieson. Picture by Steffan Hill.
NI Opera's production of Into the Woods features, left to right, Brigid Shine, Catherine Digges, Paddy Jenkins, Jolene O'Hara and Kelly Mathieson. Picture by Steffan Hill.

Into the Woods

Northern Ireland Opera

Lyric Theatre, until February 27

IF you go Into the Woods with Northern Ireland Opera before February 27, you're sure of a thrilling, moving, entertaining night of musical theatre. For Stephen Sondheim's 1986 work has been given a truly wonderful reading by director Cameron Menzies at the Lyric Theatre.

The stage is transformed via Niall McKeever's set into a symbolic wooden forest, both sinister and inviting. For that's what Into the Woods is all about, the stuff of our fairy tales, good and bad.

It's based on four of the best - Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel - woven around the story of the childless Baker and his wife.

Fairy tales, from Grimm onwards, help us come to terms with life, love, loss and the whole darn thing. Or as master lyricist Sondheim has it in I Know Things Now - Little Red Riding Hood's song about falling for the Wolf (brilliantly sung by Samantha Giffard) - "Now I know/Don't be scared/Granny is right, Just be prepared/Isn't it nice to know a lot/And a little bit not."

We start out with our characters, a troupe of very talented performers deployed round the set with imagination. They perform the music snappily, the tempo is brisk.

The score is typically Sondheim, so touches of Cole Porter, Bernstein, even Britten-ish, all played beautifully by the Opera NI orchestra. Allison Harding's superb Witch, who morphs from old crone to a kind of Nadine Dorries and movingly reveals her inability to let daughter Rapunzel grow up, has masterminded the Baker's barren curse.

The characters are all on a real and metaphorical journey, as the couple have to locate significant items. Jack (an engaging Conor Quinn) and his terrific mother (Wendy Ferguson, in fine Northern Irish voice) add comedy. Their cow, too.

Menzies has cleverly decided to allow the cast to perform in their own accents. This makes the musical more relatable, and John Linehan (aka May McFettridge) even gets a turn as the Giant's voice. The two princes - Peter Hannah and Rory McCollum - exhibit nice silly walks.

Yet in the thicket of plot and characterisation, Sondheim explores some pretty big moral questions. For example, how far will you go to get what you want?

Knives are produced at different points, the Baker (believable Alastair Brookshaw) overcomes his scruples about nicking Milky White and stealing the red cape from the little girl.

Pre-interval, we reach the happy-ever-after as the Baker and wife (outstanding Sinéad O'Kelly) get their baby son.

What happens next? Good question - it's serious stuff. There is a clear 20th century legacy as characters are killed by the Giant or by random acts of violence. Sondheim's Jewish-American heritage may come into it too. No One is Alone, one of the greatest numbers, which comes when the stage has been depleted, scoops hope from despair as we move beyond black and white judgments.

Cinderella (a young, moving account from Kelly Mathieson) and Little Red Riding Hood bat about whether we should forgive the evil Giant, who is also a person.

Young Jack wants to avenge his mother's death, but is dissuaded - two wrongs etc. It's a beautiful song, summing up the dilemmas of being human, of having to continue as people leave you "halfway through the wood". For witches can be right and giants may be good. But you, she sings, or rather we all, have to decide what really matters.

Not a bad message in the current chaos.

Jane Hardy