first night

Into The Woods

Ellie Gauge reviews HBT's annual musical 'Into The Woods'


HBT have long been recognised as one of the strongest college theatre companies in Durham. Their annual musical is always highly anticipated having won the DOscar for Best College Musical for the last four consecutive years. This year they tackle Sondheims hit show Into the Woods which has shot to fame recently with the likes of James Cordon and Meryl Streep treading the boards, so to speak, in the blockbuster film. This was a brave choice since Sondheim is so notoriously difficult, but nonetheless they have done admirably.


The beauty of a production like Into the Woods is the huge number of roles, all with reasonably meaty characters. This is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for any actor and, therefore, a brilliant choice for a student theatre production. On the one hand it allows the theatre company to showcase the full extent of their talent, but on the other hand means that any weak links are instantly visible and nobody can get away with hiding in the chorus. Whilst a number of the cast should be highly commended on their performances this evening, their strength at times outshone and perhaps highlighted the weaknesses of others.


I would like to praise in particular Elliot Mather and Georgina Armfield for their beautiful portrayal of the Baker and the Bakers Wife, which they played with a maturity and professionalism that was simply a joy to watch. Armfields naturalism was splendid and this matched with gorgeously fitting vocals meant she carried the entire show and was for me, the stand out. For a debut production Mather was incredibly impressive, and I am certain his name will appear in many productions to come.


Jess Hof should also be congratulated, in her role as the Witch. Her characterization particularly through her dynamic use of voice (certainly in the first act) was wonderful. It would have been nice to have seen the same presence continue into the second half, but this can easily be improved by a little confidence to stand her ground, lift her face and perform more directly to the audience, which in turn would place her in a more powerful position. Although vocally impressive, her diction could perhaps be improved. This was a common problem amongst the cast; the songs are lyrically heavy which is a hard feat for any actor to pull off and even harder to do in a venue with acoustics as bad as Caedmon Hall. Unfortunately this was a rather large problem given that a lot of the story is told through the songs, so it is crucial that the words are heard. I would implore the performers to ensure they tell the story through the song.


In the smaller roles, it is the men who stand out. Joe McWilliam as the Wolf was exceptional. He was the only actor who managed to fill the vast Caedmon stage. His vocals were sultry and alluring, and I was utterly convinced. The Princes, played admirably by Ed Wheatley and Jeremy Smart, were as suave and charming as they should be. HBT veterans, they seemed comfortable on stage and I felt in safe hands. Their song Agony is one of my favourite musical theatre numbers and although they did well, I craved for more. They were on the cusp of something beautifully parodic, which I feel could have been pushed a little further. Perhaps with an audience of HBT fans the boys will come into their element. The same could be said for Milky White (Henry Fell) who I am sure has the potential to bring in more laughs. He was wonderfully endearing, and I would have liked to have seen him utilised more, although perhaps I am bias with respect to Milky White having played her myself in my school production of the Into the Woods. I was more than pleased to see a human cow in HBTs show rather than the typical cardboard cut out, and would give special mention to Laura Littlefair for a truly splendid cow costume.


The worst thing about reviewing a show is having to watch a first night, which never does justice to the full strength of the show and is more often than not hindered by irritating technical hiccups. This is, in the main, forgivable - especially in the knowledge that the entire team was up until 5am last night at a tech rehearsal. Unfortunately the problems were so frequent that one could argue that it detracted from the performance, which is a real shame. My one rule as a theatre maker is to not rely on tech, and I think this is something one should especially take heed of with student theatre. Tech inevitably goes wrong and so it should never be used to scaffold a production but only enhance it. Where possible I would always advise thinking of alternative ways. Knocking on a non-existent door or a giant crashing to the floor offstage do not necessarily require prerecorded sound effects.


The stage in general was designed well and the separate sections were easily distinguishable. However with as vast a space as Caedmon, the additional level at the front seemed a little unnecessary. The action here was overcrowded and more importantly, with no consideration of sight lines, was completely blocked for the majority of the audience.


The band, which at times produced an impressive sound, seemed somewhat unrehearsed. This is hugely problematic for something as musically complicated as Sondheim. This is arguably unfair on the actors, a number of whom were left awkwardly staring into the pit as they missed yet another musical cue; their panic stricken faces giving off an air that they had never heard the band before. The show unfortunately kicked off with an awkward start with cues missed and whole verses not heard. The timings were a little all over the place and the levels were often misjudged. Unfortunately you simply cannot afford to miss a cue or jump a beat ahead with Sondheim, the music is terribly unforgiving and unless spot on, ends up sounding messy and unpleasant. One would hope that these hiccups can be ironed out during the run, because when done right the songs (for example, No one is alone) are truly magical.


In general, the production felt a little stilted and uneasy, but perhaps this can be put down to first night problems. The awkwardness can easily be removed by ensuring the cast are confident in their own ability and stay engaged throughout. If the performers look like they are truly enjoying themselves and making the most of every moment, the audience will follow suit. Take time to wait for laughter and applause, but keep entrances and exits slick. This is a beautiful show and another triumph for HBT, but it just needs a little more polish to really demonstrate its true strength. I have no doubt with a little more sleep and the backing of a supportive audience, the show will go from strength to strength.


26 February 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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