For the second time this year, a regional theatre celebrates its reopening with a major Stephen Sondheim show. But where the Wolsey in Ipswich was merely extensively refurbished, the Byre in St Andrews has been utterly rebuilt from the bottom up, incorporating what had been a neighbouring house into the fabric of the new building. The Byre has always had an atmosphere of intimacy (its very name derives from the fact that its first incarnation, when founded in 1933, was literally in a converted cowshed); the new main house, designed by Nicoll Russell Studios, manages at the same time to feel bigger than its 220-seat capacity and to maintain a sense of direct connection to the stage, with audience and performers sharing some of the entrance and exit routes.
Artistic director Ken Alexander's Scottish professional première production of Into The Woods works in much the same way as the theatre itself: it presents the audience with something which is familiar yet remade, and does so on an intimate communal level. When Barrie Hunter's narrator (in Scots formal dress) first appears, it is with the Byre's traditional notice reading "Please Keep Your Feet Off The Stage"; the curtain then rises upon Rebecca Minto's design which puts the homes of Cinderella, the childless baker and Jack the giant-killer all in a row on the forestage and virtually in the audience's laps. Even when the action moves onto the deeper set of the spikey, bauble-hung forest, the direct connection with the audience is not lost.
This is partly due to the show's nature as an ensemble piece: with no particular starring roles, there is no danger of anyone fading into the background as the characters discover a sense of community in their recognition that fairy tales go on beyond "happy ever after". Alexander and his company hit the right note of liveliness, too: they are not excessively exuberant, but whenever the chance of a quick chuckle presents itself, they don't pass it up. (Personally, I would have drawn the line just this side of using syndrums to turn the Witch's opening number into a rap, but that's a matter of individual taste.) Arguably, too, one of the production's effects is to lay the foundations for next autumn's new university term, when all of St Andrews will have to get used to the idea of having an implausibly heroic prince in its midst and yet still functioning as a normal community.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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