An amateur production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s updating of the Brothers Grimm may not be everyone’s ideal Saturday afternoon cup of tea, but sedos is not your ordinary amateur company and many a professional fringe theatre must weep at what this band of unpaid part-timers achieve in a converted Victorian swimming pool off Ludgate Circus.
The set is a wondrous creation by Steven King, drawing inspiration from both the original Broadway production and Soutra Gilmour’s multi-levelled design for Timothy Sheader’s definitive take at the Open Air Theatre in 2010. The first act reveal of the titular woods was the first of many times I was glad I’d packed a handkerchief. Added to this is a phenomenal 15 piece orchestra under the baton of conductor and musical director Ryan Macaulay playing Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations in all their original glory.
There’s probably no need to sketch out the story, but at the heart of the band of fairy tale characters that make up the cast are a childless Baker and his wife who are given a quest by a witch to enable them to make their family complete and this is where sedos have a trump card in Kara McLean as the Baker's Wife. Initially slightly overbearing, bossy and definitely wearing the metaphorical pants, her sense of pride and outpouring of love at Andrew Overin’s mild mannered Baker’s growing confidence and determination are superbly conveyed. I had to check in the programme that she wasn’t a pro and no, she has a day job & is also a film blogger. Even when she strays with a rogue prince and has her “Moment In The Woods” she still manages to keep the audience on her side despite her virtual lack of remorse at having her cake and eating it.
Of course not all the performances reach the dizzying heights of McLean, but many give her a run for her money, notably Fran Rafferty’s nerdish narrator, Lotte Gilmour’s voracious Little Red Riding Hood, Amanda Stewart’s burgeoning feminist Cinderella, Chris McGuigan’s wide-eyed naïf Jack, Susan Booth as his weary mother and Sam Harrison-Baker & Chris Warner as a pair of preening princes, whose two “Agonies” bring down the house.
Following a first act resolution when the baddies have got their just desserts and everyone else looks set to live happily ever after, Sondheim and Lapine deconstruct the story and in time-honoured fairy tale tradition present us with morality tales in abandon as life gets in the way of happiness. Once our merry band are down to five (Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his son), their aching “No-One Is Alone” has me reaching for my now soaked hankie for the umpteenth time.
Director Matthew Gould and choreographer Gayle Bryans marshall their enormous cast with steady inventive hands and produce something akin to magic and to hear some of Sondheim’s finest songs backed by a full orchestra is worth the price of admission alone.