ORIGINALLY Pick Me Up Theatre had planned to stage White Christmas this December, but when the West Yorkshire Playhouse announced it would be doing likewise in Leeds, artistic director Robert Readman made the sensible decision to switch to Into The Woods.

Sadly, he has now relinquished his two-year grip on the amateur rights to Irving Berlin's wintry favourite too.

His choices of replacement show chimes perfectly with the start of the pantomime season in York, because Stephen Sondheim's musical is a twist on the tale of Cinderella and all manner of fairytales

The flamboyantly bearded director-designer Readman is a self-confessed Sondheim buff whose love of the witty American's intricate, clever and constantly surprising musical drama is evident in every detail of his exquisite production, although the volume could have been turned down a couple of notches on Thursday night.

Just as in his 2007 version for Stagecoach Youth Theatre York, Readman's show is not playing to large houses, but those who go into the woods today will be rewarded by Readman's journey through Sondheim's fantastical, fanciful world of the fairy tale, which ventures beyond the traditional happy-ever-afters into the land of blunt reality.

This is a place of deep dissatisfaction, tragedy and unhappy endings where pantomime and Hans Christian Andersen meets A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Brothers Grimm, and Readman creates a suitably creepy woodland of lattice structures in which the familiar tales can overlap and gradually destroy each other.

The constant birdsong before the start dies out as soon as Sondheim and book writer James Lapine start intertwining the tales of Jack (gutsy Sam Hird), Little Red Riding Hood (an impetuous Katy Metheringham), Cinderella (strong-singing Kirsten Moore) and Rapunzel (the operatic-voiced Alicia Stabler).

These are woven into the story of despair of a barren couple, the baker and his wife (Rich McDonald and Toni Feetenby), who can overturn the curse of the Witch (Susannah Baines) in their desire for a child only by collecting a cow, a blood-red hood, a golden slipper and a cord of blonde hair.

Craig Kirby's Narrator, Jack Armstrong's cow, Milky White, Claire Pulpher's Yorkshire-speaking Jack's Mother, Simon Radford's haughty Prince and Mark Hird's Mysterious Man all make striking contributions as the black humour turns ever more like pitch.

Some might say Sondheim's music is as dark and impenetrable as the woods, but it suits this drama and Adam Laird marshals his band magnificently too.

More happy never after than ever after, Into The Woods is this winter's best humbug bar none.

Into The Woods, Pick Me Up Theatre, Grand Opera House, York, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or atgtickets.com/york