The Wizard of Oz

Reviewer's rating

The Christmas show at the tiny Watermill Theatre this year is a new adaptation of Frank Baum’s iconic novel for young and old, The Wizard of Oz. Informed not just by Baum’s original text but also by the 1939 MGM movie for its structure and some of its ideas, this is a totally delightful show. Dorothy is updated to Dot, a troubled, confused teenager of our modern, technology-oriented world who is, as in the original story, picked up by a cyclone and dropped in the magical Land of Oz. If I am remembering correctly, Dorothy’s Witch of the East in the original book wears silver slippers; but following the famous movie the magical modern boots that end up on Dot’s feet are bright red.

The show is an evocative piece of theatre, portraying fantasy elements with the simplest means that nevertheless provoke the imagination to experience the magic as intended. A major element of the production is the use of puppets for Toto the dog, for the Munchkins (who are much more like creatures in the original illustrations of the 1900 novel than like the ones in the 1939 film) and especially for the witch’s flying creature, in this case more like a vulture than a flying monkey.

There are only 6 people on the stage playing all the parts and also all of the instruments. The acting and musical skills and commitment of every member of the cast can only be described as impressively dazzling. Marietta Kirkbride has done a fascinating adaptation – she references the book, she references the famous movie; but she also updates the tale enough to be able to add tropes of her own. There are moments when the dialogue deals with questions of identity, of growth, of commitment and one is almost, if only fleetingly, contemplating major existential issues. The set, costumes and puppets designed by Sophia Pardon do the job of moving us from grey Kansas prairies to a world of colour, rainbows, fantastical creatures and a famous yellow route that needs to be followed by the characters to reach Oz.

Signe Larsson is charming and witty as both Glinda the Good Witch and the Personal Assistant to the Wizard and somehow does make us think there is a community there behind her in the Emerald City. Angela Caesar is a standout, vocally and dramatically, as Auntie Em, as the Wicked Witch of the West (Wesley) and as the Wizard of Oz. She is also a good violinist. Sally Cheng’s scarecrow Scarrow, Chris Coxon’s Tinman and James Gulliford’s cowardly Lionel, also sing, dance, act and play their instruments with aplomb and charm. Above all Annabel Marlow’s Dot creates a real teenager who grows through her trials and adventures into someone of courage and independence of mind.

I don’t think that the youngest children in the audience should be frightened by the darker elements of the tale because of the puppetry; the puppeteering makes the handlers visible and therefore the puppet itself less scary. I was a bit sad that Toto disappears at an early stage for most of the evening – Toto is an endearing puppet and could have been more a part of the action. The music by Nick Barstow, the composer and the music director of the show, is more than pleasant, always serviceable and some of it is memorable. There is certainly no point at which it jars or is not apt to what it is expressing.

With Sarah Golding’s fine movement direction and Georgie Staight’s seriously intelligent direction, this is a show worth seeing for the sheer experience of its imaginative and sensitive reaction to the famous tale by L Frank Baum. It’s also another fine feather in the cap of the Watermill Theatre. And if you are taking children, do buy the programme which has an activity pack for kids in it as part of the deal.