Q&A - Tim McArthur (Into The Woods)

In 2014, director Tim McArthur's dark interpretation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's twisted fairytale musical Into The Woods premiered at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre. This year, the production has returned to the Cockpit Theatre, and McArthur has joined the cast as The Baker, who sets out with his Wife to search for a series of objects they can give to their next door neighbour, The Witch, in exchange for a child.
I spoke to Tim McArthur about his role in the show, the challenges of balancing his acting and directing duties, and why Into The Woods is the perfect musical to reflect society today.
Tim McArthur and Jo Wickham in Into The Woods
Photo Credit - David Ovenden
For a lot of Into The Woods fans, their first experience of the musical may very well have been through the 2015 Disney film, but as a director you’ve decided to make this version much darker, as it was originally intended. 
Yes, I really disappointed with the film because they Disney-fied it, and actually the original stage show is a lot darker. The whole musical is about loss, and being responsible for your actions, and the ripple effect of how one thing you do can affect other people, and don't think that came across in the movie at all.

It’s interesting that often when a movie musical is released there is an influx of interest in the original source material, but Into the Woods didn't really seem to have that sort of attention. Why is now the right time to stage a production of this Sondheim staple? 

We've got this sort of society where we really don't care about each other. There's more crime, there's more greed, and more fighting. Even conflict between people in the streets, especially since the Brexit. I think it's given people a certain way to behave towards each other. And, I think the issues within the show are really relevant, because everyone feels those issues within society, and also, everyone suffers loss, and grief, and greed, and that desire for always wanting something more. Once you get something, you want the next thing, which the musical also addresses. I think that's really relevant today.

How does this production reflect those themes and their relevance to the present day whilst maintaining the original ideas within the musical?
Into The Woods is my favourite Sondheim show, and I've seen many, many productions of it, but because I wanted it to reflect our society today I based the characters on British reality TV stereotypes. So, we take it away from the fairy tale image, and make the characters into people which audiences might have seen on the telly. So, Jack and his mom, are like guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show. None of the changes effect the story, or what it's saying. It's just the look of the piece and the feel of the piece which we’ve altered.

Into the Woods is an interesting show because it features a big ensemble cast, and there are so many interweaving plot lines happening at once. As a director, is that something that is difficult to work with?
Not really. It's a bitty show. You don't get the full story all at once. So the pace is really important. I don't want the audience to applaud at the end of the musical numbers because it's really vital that as soon as the song finishes, we pick up the action.

As well as directing the show, you also appear as one of the protagonists, The Baker. What is it like to both direct the show and be a part of the cast?
I've got a great Assistant Director (Ellen Verenieks), who gives me notes and things to think about. And some people from previous production which I directed have come back, as well as some newbies. I wanted a company of people that would just get on with the job. And we're going to have fun with. That there's no room for any diva behaviour. So, in that way I've sort of been kind to myself.

What would you say to someone to persuade them to buy a ticket?
I would say, it's a fresh interpretation of a beloved classic musical. And it’s darker than any production of Into The Woods which I’ve ever seen!

Review - It's Only Life (Union Theatre)

It's Only Life depicts life as a series of moments. Some are happy, some are sad, and some are somewhere in-between. Starring a troupe of 5 performers who work in perfect harmony together, It's Only Life flows seamlessly from start to finish, as it celebrates the ups and downs of some of the most universal of human fears via the music of American Songwriter John Bucchino. Instead of focusing on specific characters, the production is a song cycle which explores universal themes via a huge collective of characters, each of which is given the length of a single song to connect to the audience. It’s a testament to Bucchino’s intelligent writing and the slick yet playful direction of Tania Azevedo that the result is a charming show which grips its audience with a careful combination of humour and melancholy, and doesn’t let go until the final number is through.
The cast of It's Only Life
Photo credit - Pamela Raith
Before the performance even begins, the audience is transported into an almost dreamlike world impossible to place in any particular time and painted all in white save a few props which stand out in red, green, blue and yellow pastel shades. Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s eclectically designed set perfectly reflects the themes of the show. Surrounding the characters with a clutter of banal everyday items such as chairs, telephones and even an overflowing laundry basket, the space becomes a physical manifestation of the central idea of It’s Only Life, which is that life goes on no matter what.

The delightful songs of Bucchino, which are performed back to back without much breathing room, merge into each other with such ease that swathes of the show simply wash over the audience like a serene wave, piqued by a couple of comedic upbeat numbers which bring about several necessary changes of pace.

Notably, Will Carey, recently a finalist in the Stephen Sondheim Society Young Performer of the Year Awards, is given an excellent moment to shine during On My Bedside Table, a riotous and relatable song about trying to outdo an ex to prove you've moved on when, of course, you haven't. Meanwhile Jennifer Harding shines brightly in the delicately tragic I’ve Learned To Let Things Go, a number which brings the show to one of its few, and undoubtedly most heartrending, pauses.

It must be said though, that the most gorgeous musical moments occur when all 5 voices combine during the show's group numbers. Songs such as That Smile, which is choreographed to present a tangled web of unrequited loves, and the uplifting Taking The Wheel, which brings the cast together as the show begins to wind down, showcase the tight harmonies of the company, as well as their chemistry as an ensemble.

A sleek and impressive ensemble and a jigsaw puzzle of narratives which captivate from start to finish, It’s Only Life is life-affirming musical journey which will leave audiences floating on air.

Review - For The Love Of Girls (The Other Palace)

To mark 100 years of women's right to vote in the UK, Serenade London presented its inaugural concert at The Other Palace, celebrating the work of female composers & lyricists in musical theatre.

Featuring a talented range of female performers, from familiar faces such as compare Wendi Peters and Laura Tebbutt, through to sensational up-and-coming talents like Nikita Johal, who recently wowed as Wendla in Spring Awakening at the Hope Mill Theatre. 

Fittingly, the concert was for the benefit of Plan International UK’s Girls Fund, which supports long-term projects to empower girls at risk of harmful practices like child marriage, female genital mutilation and violence. With such an important cause at the heart of the concert, the performers poured their all into their numbers, resulting in a thoroughly entertaining night from start to finish.

Laura Tebbutt opened the concert with the life affirming title song from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, setting the tone for the evening and establishing a loving, supportive atmosphere which continued throughout the evening. Rebecca Gilliland followed, with a soaring rendition of Journey To The Past from Anastasia. It was wonderful to hear Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's magical musical theatre tune in the spotlight, having found a new life on Broadway, and Gilliland more than did the song justice. But it wasn't just the musicals of the moment which were on display, as Charlie-Jade Jones proved as she sang Jimmy from the beloved Thoroughly Modern Millie, her crystal clear voice perfectly complimenting the silvery love song.

The first act was packed with plenty of fabulous performances of some well loved musical theatre tunes, and the quality of performance amplified even further after the interval, which was preceded by a video outlining the important work of Plan International UK's Girls  Fund, supporting girls through education so they can thrive later in life. 

There were plenty of highlights to the set list in act 2, with some notable highlights being Lauren Chia's hilarious take on Morning Person from Shrek the Musical, featuring Samantha Dorsey who lent her vocals to some cheeping birds. Alexandra J Burns performed a powerful rendition of What Baking Can Do from Sara Bareilles' Waitress the Musical, whilst Nikita Johal riffed up a storm with The History of Wrong Guys from Cindy Lauper's Kinky Boots. It was also a treat to hear Alex Young' haunting vocals as she tackled Days and Days from Fun Home, soon to be seen on the West End. The talent in the room was remarkable, and when every performer came together to close the concert with Carole King and Gerry Goffin's You've Got A Friend, it was a fittingly upbeat finale which highlighted just exactly what the whole concert was in aid of. 

With conversations about diversity and equality in the arts making headline constantly, For The Love Of Girls was a heartening celebration of the work of some of musical theatre’s foremost female composers and lyricists, performed by a first rate collective of women. It'll be a treat to see what Serenade London does next!

Review - Shakespeare's Mad Women (Theatre N16)

Lady Macbeth and Ophelia are dead, and they have been for a long time. So long that they can’t remember what water tastes like anymore. Trapped in some kind of purgatory, and with nothing else to do they voyeuristically watch a young woman named Juliet fall in love with a man named Romeo, setting off a chain of events which ends with Juliet stabbing herself to death. A few seconds later, she is delivered to the same purgatorial space, doomed to sit, and wait, and relive the traumas which led to her demise. But Lady M, Ophelia and Juliet have had enough of sitting around waiting, and as they plot their seemingly impossible escape, they reflect on the fact that while the men in their lives are seen as complex characters, they are reduced to just 'mad women'.
The cast of Shakespeare's Mad Women
Photo credit - Max Curtis Photography
Shakespeare’s Mad Women is an ingenious dark comedy from Lady Garden Theatre. Written and directed by Abigail Smith, the slightly surreal play cleverly merges speeches from Shakespeare’s most iconic female characters with modern dialogue, emphasising the timelessness of the limbo they inhabit.

Having been stuck in the post-death prison for the longest, Holly Cuffley’s Wild eyed Lady M acts as a sort of tough love aunt to Gabrielle Pausey’s livewire Ophelia, with Gala Wesson’s Juliet, the new arrival, quickly shedding her wide eyed bemusement and embracing her newfound self-reliance, bolstered by her fellow wasteland dwellers.

The production’s beautifully simplistic design paints a bleak picture of the nowhere in which the three women reside. A baron room, with books, dainty crockery, and rose petals strewn about, perfectly embodies all that is stereotypically feminine about Shakespeare’s heroines. However, the women have no trouble putting their own stamp on the space, filling their teacups with moonshine exhumed from a mysterious trunk in the corner of the room. 

Holly Cuffley as Lady M in Shakespeare's Mad Women
Photo credit - Max Curtis Photography
Shakespeare’s Mad Women is tightly directed by Abigail Smith. One particularly crafty moment set to music sees the women band together to plot ways to end their own lives in order to pass from purgatory into the afterlife. The dark humour of the sequence is excellent, with Ophelia and Juliet’s attempt to suffocate Lady M with a pillow acting as a sly nod to another of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, Desdemona, who meet her demise in the same way in Othello. Of course, their attempts are unsuccessful, and when Ophelia is confronted with a bucket of water, and reluctantly plunges her head in as a last resort, the sequence meets a conclusion which is as satisfying for audiences as it is frustrating for the immortal characters.

What’s clear by the end of the play is that Shakespeare’s 'mad women' are simply victims of circumstance, lashing out at the oppression they face as a result of their gender, before falling foul to the adversity. The play ends with a very clear message that the doting, obedient women in Shakespeare’s plays, defined by their relationship to the men surrounding them, are stronger and more complex than they are perceived to be, and that the only way to break away from the confines of the society they are imprisoned by is to rip up the rulebook and establish new rules for themselves.

Audiences leave having heard the message loud and clear... but can somebody tell Cleopatra!

Review - Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and Stiles and Drewe Prize (Savoy Theatre)

The annual Stephen Sondheim Society’s annual Student Performer of the Year competition culminates each year in a West End Gala, where young 12 finalists showcase their performance skills in front of an audience and a panel of esteemed judges. Previous finalists have included Taron Egerton, Cynthia Erivo and Alex Young, and so it’s evident that the finalists this year are destined to go on do amazing things. The competition runs alongside the Stiles and Drewe Prize for new musical theatre writing, which supports new musical theatre through a prize for Best New Song, and a Mentorship Award which sees one new musical receive mentorship for a year, culminating in an industry showcase. As was to be expected, the event proved to be a fabulous few hours, celebrating the best upcoming talent in musical theatre performing and writing.

Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year winner Alex Cardall with judge Julia McKenzie
Photo credit - David Ovenden
The performer of the year competition was jam-packed with undoubtedly some of the most promising new faces in musical theatre, with the standard of performances extremely high across the board. Although there could be only one overall winner, each finalist performed with virtuosity, mastering the complexities of the music and providing fresh new interpretations of some of Sondheim’s most beloved songs, as well as some of his lesser known pieces.

After almost 3 hours of competing, the winner of the Student Performer of the Year competition was awarded to Arts Ed student Alex Cardall, who performed the marathon-like Buddy’s Blues from Company with ease, and wowed with his understated performance of You and Me by Adam Wachter. Wachter’s touching song about unrequited love was also awarded the Stiles and Drewe Prize for Best New Song, a testament to both the outstanding writing and performing on display.

Second prize was awarded to James Stirling, who was utterly commanding and transformative as the Wolf from Sondheim’s Into The Woods, singing the gloriously creepy Hello Little Girl. Meanwhile Stephen Sondheim Society Patron Julia McKenzie donated a third prize to performer Shelby Flannery for her rendition of I Wish I Could Forget You from Passion.

Other highlights of the competition included Will Carey, who opened the competition with Giants In The Sky from Into The Woods. Although the song is one of Sondheim’s most recognisable, Carey mastered the storytelling, making his interpretation exceptionally memorable. His second performance was equally impressive, as he tackled a new rock musical song, Everything Will be Alright by China Doll, Roxanne Lamendola, Leah Fogo and Scott Stait.

Additionally, Thomas Grant’s performance of the tongue twisting song Franklin Shephard Inc. from Merrily We Roll Along was a treat. Coming towards the end of the showcase, it provided a few laughs and a chance for Grant to showcase some brilliant character acting. Meanwhile, Amara Okereke, soon to be seen as Cosette in Les Miserables on the West End, performed a Not A Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along gorgeously, and was magnetic in her second song, Shone With The Sun by Benjamin Till, Nathan Taylor & Sir Arnold Wesker. Bonnie Baddoo's Ladies Who Lunch from Company was yet another highlight in amongst the exemplary selection.

In addition to Alex Cardall and Adam Wachter’s wins, Kit Buchan and Jim Barne’s The Season was awarded the Mentorship Award, and will no doubt be a musical to keep an eye as it develops over the coming years.

This year’s Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year and Stiles and Drewe Prize was a remarkable showcase for some of the most exciting up and coming musical theatre talent, and it will be thrilling to see where all of the finalists end up over the next few years.

Review - Young Frankenstein (Garrick Theatre)

When the infamous Doctor Frankenstein dies suddenly, his studious grandson Frederick Frankenstein (it’s pronounced 'Fronkensteen', apparently) travels to Transylvania to claim his inheritance, leaving his glamourous fiancĂ© Elizabeth behind in New York. However, as soon as he arrives, it becomes clear that what was intended to be a brief jaunt to Europe is destined to become something bigger, when, with the help of his gaunt but gamely new manservant Igor and playful lab assistant Inga, Frederick discovers his grandfather’s secret lab, and inside it, the secret to reanimating a human body!
The cast of Young Frankenstein
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
From the very moment Young Frankenstein opens, and vicious thunder and flashes of lightening dissolves into a dry lecture room, the tone of the musical is set. Based on the 1974 horror film parody of the same name, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's outrageous musical comedy is a song and dance spectacular for those who love a bit of schlock horror.

And boy, is Young Frankenstein schlocky, terribly and purposefully so! With cartoonish painted backdrops and cheap and nasty props (at one point an angry mob-goer (because of course a pitchfork wielding mob plays a part in the story) looks as his torch with dismay as it flickers lamely), Young Frankenstein is a B movie come to life. Broad comedy and cheeky jokes give the musical a Carry On vibe, which may not be for everyone, but for the most part, it gets its laughs from silly slapstick and sight gags, artfully performed by a spirited cast, who make even the bluest jokes palatable.

Hadley Fraser is magnetic as Frederick. From a bookish university educator and brain enthusiast, to the fluffy haired, cackling scientist you’d expect to see in a horror film, he’s hilarious at every turn, and with an impressive voice to match it’s easy to see why he catches the eye of Summer Strallen’s lithely Inga, and vice versa. As the flirtatious lab assistant, Strallen is captivating, with a bell-like voice and mesmerising dance skills, she’s impossible to ignore on stage, and holds her own in the comedic moments, which do undeniably favour the male characters.
Hadley Fraser and Cory English in Young Frankenstein
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Dianne Pilkington's Elizabeth, who makes an unforgettable mark in act one with her solo Please Don’t Touch Me, is an explosive addition to act two, whilst Cory English reprises his role as Igor, having previously entertained fans on Broadway with his excellent combination of simper and sarcasm. Meanwhile, Nic Greenshields almost steals the show as the monster, bringing the house down with his contribution to Puttin’ On The Ritz, an excellent duet between creature and creator, which features top hats and tails, and back up from the monstrously good ensemble!

The entire cast are game and fully embrace the nudge and wink humour of the script, making it easy for the audience to get on board from the very beginning, but there are still some aspects of Young Frankenstein which may raise a few eyebrows. Its objectification of Inga and Elizabeth is clearly played for laughs, but still feels a bit uncomfortable at times, and the monster’s overly forward advances towards the latter are also a bit icky, even if everything does work out alright for the pair in the end.

All in all though, Young Frankenstein is one hell of a good time. Shameless, irreverent and excruciatingly funny. Sure, it has a few rocky moments, but it never feels malicious, and once Transylvania Mania takes hold, there’s no going back!

I was invited to review Young Frankenstein thanks to www.londonboxoffice.co.uk.

Review - Into The Woods (Cockpit Theatre)

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s well-loved musical Into The Woods sees a Baker and his Wife commanded by their witchy next door neighbour head off into the titular woods to find 4 ingredients which will help them to break an infertility spell and allow them to have a child. On their journey they run into famous storybook staples like Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella and even the evil Wolf, but no one is quite as two dimensional as they seem on the page, as Into The Woods explores what happens after “happily ever after”.
Michele Moran as the Witch in Into The Woods
Photo credit - David Ovenden
Located in a fairy tale world melded with our own, where the Princes waltz around in pastel coloured blazers and boat shoes (classic Made in Chelsea fair), the evil stepsisters are wannabe TOWIE stars, and the Baker and his Wife slave away behind the counter at Greggs, Tim McArthur’s reinvented production of Into The Woods locates its focus not only on family but also the state of society, as it draws attention to the contrasts between the wealthy Princes and Cinderella’s nouveau riche stepmother, and the working class underlings who suffer as a result of their actions. Most inventively, Jack (of beanstalk climbing fame) and his cider chugging, thong flashing mother are loud mouthed Glaswegians who stick out like sore thumbs, clearly judged negatively by those around them due to their implied poverty.

The production is staged in the round, allowing for the stage area to stretch outwards as well as upwards (rickety wooden ladders hang down from the sky, implying the giant kingdom above) and making plenty of room for the vast and sprawling story which drives the musical. Sadly, although Joana Dias’s set is inventively designed, it does often create sightline obstruction issues, and coupled with the Cockpit Theatre’s iffy sound system, some lines are lost and significant moments blocked from view.
The cast of Into The Woods
Photo credit - David Ovenden
Cutting through the unreliable acoustics, Michele Moran is a revelation as the Witch. As creepy as the crone who sends the Baker and his Wife off on their journey as she is statuesque and poised as the almost ethereal post-curse enchantress, Moran thrills with glimmering vocals and an immutable presence. Louise Olley is similarly spectacular as Rapunzel, her crystalline soprano ringing out around the space, she is wonderfully sweet, and sporting a long rope of blonde hair, she is a typical storybook Princess in the making, which only makes her inevitable act 2 downfall all the more upsetting. Florence Odumosu is also an enjoyable presence as Little Red Ridinghood, whilst Jo Wickham is hilarious as the motherly Baker’s Wife, lured from her safe story by the temptation of an exciting forest tryst with a womanizing member of the royal family.

Despite the multitude of characters populating the musical, each exploring their own storyline, the production does suffer from a bit of fatigue in act two. The story moves quickly, but the songs are staged a little too leisurely and incidentally, making some of the less eventful tunes stop the plot in its tracks. The dramatic deaths which come thick and fast post-interval also have relatively little impact on the characters, thus lessening the emotional impact of the denouement. When the story comes to a head and Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella leads the surviving characters in a rousing rendition of No One Is Alone, the song is undeniably impactful, but doesn’t quite reach tear-jerking emotional heights.

Nevertheless, Tim McArthur’s production of Into The Woods is a creatively staged and hits almost all the right notes. With a talented ensemble cast, and imaginative design, it makes the most of the petite Cockpit Theatre stage, and brings plenty of charm, as well as darkness, to the magical musical.