If you go down to the Woods today … you’ll be genuinely surprised...
What you will find is a new high-water mark of Hurtwood achievement. Welcome to the sophisticated world of the late great Stephen Sondheim: this is no simple sedative of a musical and you’ll search hard for the usual glitter and glamour. Instead, you’ll find an extraordinary maze of storytelling and satirical reworkings of favourite fairy stories, a breadth of talent that almost defies individuation, and a collective celebration of the human spirit that endures beyond simple cliché. This is grown-up theatre of the most professional kind, with music to challenge, and a script that crackles with ironic edge. Imagination and reality blur into spectacle as well as unexpected outcomes that could hardly be more fitting for our difficult times. Forget the cliché of happy-ever-afterness, and enjoy instead a celebration of collective mutual support in the face of an upturned world and personal loss.
The set is deceptively simple: a layered wood of ‘word’ trees suggest at first a kind of static forest of language – symbolic trees as stable in their way as the iconic stories we tell ourselves about our lives and loves. Like Shakespeare’s Arden it soon becomes clear that this is a magic place where the rules get challenged and broken, where we can find fun and fear in equal measure. Words flow across the floor, drawing us into the books large and small, set and props; into books that flutter like birds luring and alluring, swooping in like Snow White’s Disney confidantes. Hey, wait: I think I mean Cinderella. Within minutes the stage explodes with an almost cartoonish blend of nursery story characters, stories that we already know flow and blend together, satirically challenging what we expect, inviting recognition and reinvention in equal measure. The pace is electrifying, the rhythmical lyrics and music both familiar and different. We’re listening and watching and thinking while the clichés are probed and twisted, and a cast of thousands it seems interact at lightning speed with a choreography that is breathtaking. The effect is less dance, more stylised pattern and mime, the script at once effortlessly lyrical and beguilingly musical. How can so many weary students, at the tail end of one of Hurtwood’s most crushingly long, demanding and frankly weird terms, be drawing us into this funny story with grace, energy – and all without bumping into the set or each other? Theatre, the magic of: forget the analysis, just enjoy the ride.
The subject matter? Everything turns on the family: evil step-parents and unloved children, longed-for babies and the myth of perfect family dynamics, parental pressures, expectations and disappointments. All the characters are indeed longing for love and approval: a child or a prince, a lost mother, fame or fortune, or simply a beloved cow Chalky White. In Act One, all pursue their own aims regardless of others and it ends with wishes fulfilled: money, marriage, fame, baby – all boxes are ticked. Yet the effect is strangely unsatisfactory. Act Two unravels a different story, and this is where the Sondheim genius lies, as imperfect humanity shows its true face. Dreams evaporate, people die, loss and disillusionment reign. A musical for our times? Absolutely. But Covid be damned – the show must go on, and we will find ways to shape positive outcomes from friendship loyalty and pure human spirit.
Magical moments abound: books that flutter like birds with the words and ideas they disseminate, witches and wolves that challenge their own stereotypes and like everyone else are leaning out for love and approval. Sleazy unfaithful princes, disillusioned and flirtatious princesses: the effect is a haunting kind of alternative reality. Sondheim challenges us to see that what we ‘wish for’ sometimes comes at considerable cost, interrogating the boredom of conformity and the hollow reward of devalued cliché.
Like Sondheim’s achievement, Hurtwood’s performance is truly outstanding. Doug and Andy’s deft direction gives us action that moves at breakneck speed, while Nick masterminds a musical score that ebbs and soars throughout. Neil and Lottie work choreographical genius with the vast company, co-ordinating an extraordinary flow of stylised images across stage and story that is frankly breathtaking. Costumes, props, lighting and sound – as ever the domain of Elisabeth, Al, and Guy – are pitch perfect and, as ever, serve to clarify and enlarge the whole effect. So many actors impress: Ellie’s fresh-faced thoughtful Cinderella and Gracie’s selfish defensive stepmother; Sam’s unguarded, restless Jack and Georgia’s weary mother, acerbic and bowed by poverty; Daisy offered us a most self-satisfied, mesmerising but irritatingly confident Little Miss Red Riding Hood, who learned the perils of eating until she got eaten. Adam and Keira, meanwhile, carried the weight of a whole cavalcade of pastoral villagers (us ordinary folk?) in their pursuit of the everyday miracle of creating their own family, only to encounter child-care issues and boredom. George and Max quite rightly stole the stage at times as they strutted their clashing stereotypical versions of masculinity, while Fia and Zaza belted out female frustration with enormous aplomb, alternating nightly as the marginalised and dissatisfied witches unable to accept parental loss of control over the trilling Rapunzel with her adaptable hairstyle and penchant for unreliable princes. There were simply no weak links. Comic vignettes abounded, from Melis’ cheerfully enthusiastic and violent Granny, to Josh’s hungry Wolf, by way of Emily and Adriana’s buffoonish Ugly Sisters. A personal favourite was the reliable geekiness of the cheery know-it-all Scout-in-chief, Tom, all long shorts and socks, and self-satisfied British bossiness. At times the mood suggested panto meeting Tarantino by way of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
The whole effect of the evening was thrilling. More impressive than all the individual players in the show was the cohesion of the entire company: the timing, choral work, and interplay of dialogue and action were flawless. At the risk of repetition this was a high-water mark for Hurtwood. Doug and his incredibly talented team brought out the very best in every Hurtwood student involved and gave us all another kind of shot in the arm. The final flourish to the professional polish and expertise of this Christmas musical was that it brought the whole company together in a world all too aware that whilst we might hope for the best we must so often cope with the worst. To misquote our unfaithful Prince, this was theatre that was not just charming, it was also sincere. Hurrah for Hurtwood, I say!