Event review: Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association presents Into The Woods at Stanley Halls, 25th-28th October

By - Thursday 2nd November, 2017

Darker than Disney, as ghoulish as Grimm… CODA triumphs at Stanley Halls

Image by CODA Croydon, used with permission.

It has been nine years since CODA last performed at the grand and historic Stanley Halls in Norwood. That show was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and the company has chosen another classic from Stephen Sondheim for their latest production, Into the Woods. And sure enough, four of the men from Sweeney are back for this one, along with many newbs making their CODA debuts.

The director, her assistant, and the musical director are all new to CODA also, and in the programme’s director’s notes, Katie Leitch underlines her determination to have no trees as part of the set. The show is presented in traverse – in other words, a stage is laid out catwalk style from the venue’s actual stage, with the audience divided either side of it, putting the entire audience in the front three rows. It is a very modern and common-sense approach: instead of having the twelve strong orchestra becoming a barrier between the audience and actors and perhaps drowning them out, we have the musicians to one side of the audience and the colourful characters, perfectly costumed by outfit legend Sue Kennard, right where everyone has a chance of catching their facial expressions, on that clever catwalk. The absence of trees in a play about going into the woods matters not, for it is the characters going into the woods that matter the most… and what a cast they are.

The story is a musical mash-up of fairy-tale characters, very much in vogue with TV series such as Once Upon A Time and endless films mining tales from the Brothers Grimm, live action Disneys and, of course, the movie version of this very musical. I had not seen this show before, or the film, suffering as I do from an acute aversion to James Corden, so this was all fresh to me, and with characters getting eaten by giants, and three of them blinded, it is darker than anything Uncle Walt ever gave us. This has more in common with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

Tony Bannister is enigmatic as the narrator, with keen comic timing. He introduces us to the baker and his wife, played ably by likeable Paul Grace and Sophia Wilson, who is owner of a very decent set of lungs. This couple want but can’t have children. Enter a witch, brought to life with a wide-eyed terror by Sarah ‘H’ Gordon, who tells them that this curse can be lifted should they bring her four items: a white cow (giant-slayer Jack has one!), a cloak red as blood (Red Riding Hood has one!), a slipper (Cinderella has two!) and finally, some hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel’s might do!). All of these characters just happen to be going into the woods, and so too does our baker, with paths crossing in clever ways, mirroring the ingenious way in which Sondheim’s lines often clash meeting the same word somewhere in the middle.

Spunky, squealy, cheeky and ever so funny

There isn’t a bum performance throughout the show. I wish I had space to praise every actor, but I can’t not mention both Peter Davis and Chris Ranaldi as the two hilarious princes, the latter also magnetically playing the big bad wolf early in act one. Abbie McCrone also captures laurels for a many layered Red Riding Hood, who is spunky, squealy, cheeky, and ever so funny. Amy Hayes is awesome as Cinderella, with Samantha Leitch and Megan Claridge both making mighty meals of their roles as Cinders’ stepsisters, and the striking Solayr Layton-Thomas giving an imperious stepmother.

The creative team is wily for using the venue’s balcony for the tower prison housing Rapunzel (played with a beautiful singing voice by Alessandra Ludlum), and lighting director Alistair Lindsay raises this amateur production to professional levels with his design and use of haze. The sound from Richard Carter is glitch-free, and MD Joshua Hickin conducts his tight orchestra faultlessly.

What a joy it is to see CODA climb back to the beanstalk heights of its glory days with this triumphant production. I hope the committee members realise that this is surely down to their finding a team hungry to put the show on, rather than picking a show themselves, and then seeking a team to put it on for them. If they can repeat this trick for all of their future shows, they can only live happily ever after.

Rob Preston

Rob Preston

Rob was a co-host on Croydon Radio's Encyclopaedia Croydonia, and hosts the popular bi-monthly tribute nights at The Oval Tavern on Oval Road. As a writer / photographer his work has been published in Doctor Who Magazine, Dreamwatch, Auton, Dog's Breakfast, Bulletin Your Head and SoHo Life & Technology Today. His short stories have been read at Tales of Croydonia at The Oval Tavern, and he is currently working on two anthologies of his own short stories, one crime, the other horror. He has written and directed seven plays at various Croydon venues, and survives today as a jobbing actor.

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