The Devonshire Park Theatre is back from the dark this week, when the students of Bede’s School welcome you into a world of not-quite-reality, and magical theatre: Into The Woods.
Stephen Sondheim is the finest writer of musical theatre in the last half-century, and Into The Woods is a brilliant confection, a clever interweaving of fairy tales that sparkles with delicious fantasy, but ripples with dark undertones. The music is demanding, full of elastic dancing melodies, and the dialogue demands perfect timing.
It’s a Saturday afternoon out at Bede’s School at The Dicker, and I’m invited to see the production’s progress at first-hand. Remarkably, still five days and a couple of dress rehearsals away from opening, the Bede’s cast has just about nailed it. The stage of the rehearsal studio is a blur of movement and colour, and the young actors switch skilfully in and out. And at the back, intently watching with notebook in hand, stands head of drama Karen Lewis.
Spin the clock forward 24 hours to Sunday, and Karen is perched in the stalls of the Devonshire Park, overseeing a bustling army of crew. “It’s all coming together, and we are hugely excited! For the first time in a long while we are bringing our school drama from out of town to right in the middle of town. It allows us to cast a wider audience net, and to share what I think is a really exciting production.”
Why choose Into The Woods? “It’s a musical with some great comic moments, so we can be really playful with it, and a wide range of really interesting characters. It’s not your usual musical with high kicks and only four lead characters. It’s such a fantastic musical because you’ve got that range of roles and you can fit in a spread of ages and even of heights!”
“We have students from Year Nine, so just 14, right up to 18. It’s the principle of the school play, that we audition everybody who wants to take part. We have GCSE and A-Level Drama, Music and Theatre Studies students taking part, but that’s not the fundamental principle of doing the show. What we want is for the kids to have a lot of fun, and to learn to work together, and to perform in a professional theatre. That’s the challenge and that’s the thrill.”
Quite difficult music? “Yes, that’s been the biggest challenge, I’d say, but that’s what we wanted, to really push the students, because we have some great talent. It’s fantastic for them to be confronted with Sondheim and, I think, to overcome it.”
And they won’t freeze on the night, I wonder? Karen chuckles. “There may be that moment when they step out in a professional theatre and see a three-tiered auditorium, and gulp. But we will have been rehearsing here during the week, so they’ve been well prepared and they’re ready. And our youngest lead actor, who plays Jack, has already played the Donmar Warehouse for a month in Fathers and Sons. A veteran at fourteen!”
The young people I had been chatting to seemed not only ready, but eagerly confident. Sixth-formers Joe and Alice, respectively the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, say: “It’s this crazy story that incorporates all the classic fairy tales into this journey through the woods that the characters have to take, and all their adventures and experiences.” The world is divided into those who are already Stephen Sondheim fans (yes, I confess), and those not yet converted. The former will need no persuading but if you are still to be tempted, get along to the Devonshire this week. Performances from Thursday Feb 4 - Saturday 6. Booking at www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk