This year’s RicNic production, Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim, follows the stories of a handful of fairy-tale characters as their stories intertwine, reach their happy endings in time for the interval – and then begin to collapse all over again.
This show is full of fantastically larger-than-life characters fully realised by RicNic’s talented young actors: Bea Norris makes a convincing six-year-old as Little Red Riding Hood, both naïve and badass; Sam Foster as Jack is dense and adorably wimpy at the start; and the princes, played by Jono Suter and Chris Schweppe, are hilariously cocky and completely unprincipled.
However, these are not pantomime characters – they all have complexities, discoveries to make and many of them develop surprisingly over the course of the play. The Witch is the greatest example of this – she is played very genuinely by Isobel Knight whose combination of armour attitude and real humanity makes her a truly complex character. Her voice, rough and raw and powerful with a lot of character and a striking deep range, is perfect for the part. Another outstanding characterisation comes from Lois Axenderrie, who won our hearts as the Baker’s Wife with her expressive witty tones that fill the shortest sentence with irony and hidden meaning, and her singing that flits between melodic tune and spoken word. Josh Kerr, as the Baker, also gave a flawless realisation of his character – sometimes sympathetic, sometimes infuriating, tragic or resilient but always believable. Cinderella was, in this production, a fascinating and complex character and I was impressed by how the play interprets her behaviour. Darcy Rak’s performance gave her a fascinating, layered personality, and her singing voice was stunning. Finally, special mention must go to Ben Ashton, a comic genius who drew laughs out of the slightest flicker of a facial expression or even doing nothing at all, as Milky White the cow.
After the lively humorous first act, the musical darkens. It is gripping to watch the characters’ assumptions dissolve as they question what they already know and the lines between hero and villain blur. The plot is incredibly well-crafted – even as we think we have realised what we are being told or guessed the next twist, the play surprises us again – but it works only because of the actors’ steady and complete understanding of their characters. There is no weak link in this production.
Part of the musical’s success was down to the production quality, which combined set, costume and lighting to achieve a consistent, distinctive and edgy aesthetic for the show. The set was fairly simple in design but very versatile – the multi-level stage allowed for the split-staging of songs and scenes, and the set was painted in just such a way that sometimes the trees could look idyllic, but in the right light they could also look grim and spooky or even horrific. The light was most effective when used simply – I was particularly impressed by the evocative use of slight changes in colour and brightness to change the atmosphere a lot. However I did find that some of the dappled lighting effects in the second act were a little distracting. The costumes were really well-designed too, from Cinderella’s breathtakingly beautiful ball gown to the hilarious cow-costume to the impressive range of wigs, including a full head of hair for Rapunzel and a beard that half engulfed the Mysterious Man (James Carter) to the dramatic leather costume that made the Wolf (Shakur Gabbidon-Williams) look as if he had just walked onstage from a rock musical.
What makes this achievement even more impressive is that RicNic’s productions are not only performed by 16-21 year olds, but also directed and designed by them. Together, they have created a seamless and professional show that held its audience spellbound and brought Sondheim’s sharp lyrics and darkly edgy story to life with creativity, precision and emotional honesty.