“An exemplary show that will certainly delight, bewilder, and charm you, and crowns a wonderful Michaelmas of theatre…

Tone Deaf Theatre Company has attempted the musical theatre impossible, putting together a whole Sondheim musical with a cast of only ten (yes, ten!) in just eight weeks. They have succeeded in triumphant fashion.

Director Emily Phillips, assisted by Hannah Kisiala, has simply created an outstanding piece of theatre that wouldn’t be out of place on a Broadway stage. Into the Woods is a dense and complex musical, but Phillips’ strong direction results in a slick production that jumps from song to song effortlessly.

The musical score is executed with aplomb; led by Carolyn Leung, the band are on top form, never missing a note, and fill the theatre with a refined and professional sound. It’s easy to forget that these musicians are students, and they all deserve plaudits for mastering a famously difficult Sondheim score in just two months.

Visually, the aesthetic is impressive and hugely effective. With set design by Sarah Johnston, the Assembly Rooms Theatre is completely transformed into a children’s playground, adorned with swings, towers, a slide, and a sand pit, beautifully reflecting the themes of childhood and memory that permeate the narrative. Likewise, Theo Nellis’s lighting design is magical, allowing for some truly breathtaking visual moments. The artistic decision to create character through lighting is ingenious, especially considering the small cast.

Indeed, this small, multi-rolling cast is the central element of Phillips’ unique reimagining of the classic musical. Although sometimes a little clunky, the multi-rolling is brilliant and works best where the actors embrace its silliness, using the fragmentary costume pieces to change character on stage mid-song.

Tom Carrol is superb as the warm-hearted Baker and – although he charms with his goofiness and jovial nature – comes alive in the second half, displaying an astounding range of emotions that peaks in his emotionally fraught portrayal of grief in ‘No More’. His chemistry with Charlotte Dixon is fantastic, who excellently plays the Baker’s more pragmatic and good-natured wife. Dixen is truly outstanding at acting through song – a trait which peaks in her wonderful performance within ‘Moments in the Woods’. Sending the Baker and his wife into the woods in the hope of finally being able to have a child is Oyin Afe, who gives a tour-de-force performance as The Witch. Afe commands the stage from the get-go; her beautiful voice leaves the audience astounded at multiple points in a simply revolutionary performance.

Of the characters that the Baker and his wife meet in the woods, Charlie Holliday (Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel/Cinderella’s Mother) and Isabel Askew (Cinderella/Granny) are magnificent. Holliday should be particularly commended for her ability to effortlessly switch between two voice types in her dual role and for her delightful characterisation, whilst Askew delivers a striking performance as the earnest Cinderella with her angelic soprano voice. Bede Capstick (Jack/Steward) completes the youthful trio as the determined young Giant-killer and performs ‘Giants in the Sky’ with an infectious dynamism. Their quartet ‘Your Fault’ with Carrol is a standout moment that exemplifies the rigorous work of Vocal Musical Director Max Wedmore (and assistant Freya Hartley) in preparing the actors for such a complex and nuanced musical. Although lines are occasionally lost (mainly in scenes where characters talk over the orchestrations), there is no denying that Wedmore has achieved a monumental feat.

There are other characters venturing into the woods too: Cora Frith Fletcher (Jack’s Mother/Cinderella’s Stepmother) provides comic relief with her wonderful control of voice and facial expressions and – although she changes character innumerable times (even within the same songs) – she never misses a beat; Charles Moscrop (Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf/Florinda) and Joe Butler-Smith (Rapunzel’s Prince/Lucinda) are hilarious in their roles as grief-stricken, vain princes, and obnoxious stepsisters (their duo ‘Agony’ is a particular highlight with their childish sulking in the sand pit) – Moscrop is especially fantastic (and seductive!) as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s prince, a dual role that cleverly invites us to consider the similarities in men’s pursuit of women in the story; Midun Odunaiya (The Narrator/Mysterious Man/Cinderella’s Father) deserves recognition for his stellar performance as the show’s main storyteller, and displays a wonderfully tender singing voice at sporadic intervals. This is, without doubt, an ensemble piece and, despite a few issues arising with props and set, the cast handles them professionally and diligently.

Into the Woods is clearly a passion project for Emily Phillips, and the time and effort injected into it from her truly shows at every turn. But, for a piece of theatre that encompasses so much in its nearly 3-hour runtime, it would be impossible without a strong creative team steadying the ship. Under Production Manager James Duxbury, significant praise must be directed at the huge number of people who dedicated time and energy into making this show happen.

TDTC’s Into the Woods is, ultimately, an exemplary show that will certainly delight, bewilder, and charm you, and crowns a wonderful Michaelmas of theatre. Unmissable.

By Ollie Cochran

Tone Deaf Theatre Company’s Production of Into the Woods will continue to show at 19:30 on Thursday the 7th to Saturday the 9th of December, as well as a 14:30 performance on Saturday the 9th.