“That’s great entertainment,” said the father of arguably the Best Baddie in Britain as we chatted after the show. And he’s right, this Wizard of Oz is great entertainment. It’s a musical, not a pantomime, with the songs and the script based on the film with some additions from the book, which was put together by the RSC in 1987 and has been on somewhere ever since.
In this production at Leeds Playhouse, from the moment Dorothy starts to sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow you know you’re in safe hands, and can relax into a warm bath of sentimental storytelling. On press night, Dorothy was played by Lucy Sherman, who was extremely good and, when you find out she’s only 14, rather astonishing. I’m assured that Agatha Meehan, the alternate Dorothy, is equally astonishing and even younger.
Toto is a real dog who steals the scenes he’s in, but when we move from Kansas to Oz he becomes a puppet, beautifully made by Charlie Tymms and brilliantly manipulated by Ailsa Dalling under the direction of Rachel Leonard. The crow puppets are a thing of beauty too, reminiscent of the crows in Dumbo.
The munchkins are played by local children who have a great deal to do and are excellent. In fact everyone is excellent, and James Brining, who is experienced at this kind of big musical, directs with an assured hand. Which is just as well because it’s an iconic story, and audiences have expectations. When Dorothy turns up in Oz in a gingham dress – she starts the show in overalls – the dress gets a round of applause.
As a story it’s a bit short on plot, but that’s made up for by the charm of the encounters with the Scarecrow – Eleanor Sutton, the Tin Man – Sam Harrison, the Cowardly Lion, – Marcus Ayton, the Munchkins, and of course the Wizard himself, Graham Hoadly. And there’s an ensemble of five men and five women who do sterling work in a number of relatively thankless roles, but they do get to tap dance. The choreography is by Lucy Cullingford, who must have drilled those munchkins to the point of exhaustion.
With our expectations so amply satisfied we still want a touch of jeopardy, and that’s provided by the Wicked Witch of the West, played nastily by Polly Lister. She seems to specialise in these roles now (Cruella de Vil at Stoke comes to mind) but by far the most terrifying was the witch in Hansel and Gretel at Williamson Park in Lancaster. I woke up sweating for weeks. And she pulls no punches here. She’s thoroughly nasty as Miss Gulch, who wants to have Toto put down for biting her, and positively wicked as the Witch of the West; so much so that we want to boo and hiss her, but weren’t sure if it was that kind of show. We need permission please.
If I have a quibble, it’s about the design concept. Simon Higlett has set it on an open stage with a series of concentric revolves, and much of the action involves the revolves, bringing scenes on and taking them off, and I felt they rather slowed the action down. There’s quite a lot of projected scenery and effects, which we’re all rather used to now, and I thought the ‘twister’ that carries Dorothy to Oz might have been more exciting done low tech. There are a couple of aerialists doing acrobatics on silks during these transitions but, good as they are, they don’t really add anything.
Frank Baum’s novel, The Wizard of Oz, is regarded by many as the first truly feminist American children’s book. Baum was a great advocate of women’s suffrage and Dorothy may be based on his mother. Some critics see it as a political allegory, others as a psychedelic dream. We just saw it as great entertainment with some very good parts for females. Anything else was entirely subliminal, which is probably why we applauded the dress.
Photos by The Other Richard
The Wizard of Oz is at Leeds Playhouse until January 25, 2020. For more information, click here.