Much like Dorothy, Bolton Octagon has been cast adrift from its moorings, although in a manner less dramatic than cyclonic updraft. While its home is undergoing refurbishment, the theatre is on the road, open to new adventures in unfamiliar surroundings. Hence the Premier Suite, a five minute scurry from Horsham Parkway, a staging post for wanderers from near and far.
It’s not the most natural of dramatic venues, and one of the many strengths of this winning production is the imaginative range of strategies (everybody loves soap bubbles) it deploys to dispel any suspicion that you are in a well-appointed function room. The audience is quickly transported from the expectation of a self-serve buffet and laminated name badges to the magical realms of Bolton Market.
Indeed, this team-authored retelling of L. Frank Baum’s Christmas perennial makes a great virtue of its uprooting from Kansas to Lancashire, seasoning the dialogue – in the best pantomime tradition – with regional recipes for recognition.
Accordingly, the inevitable – at least for the older members of the audience – reflexive recall of Judy’s ruby-slippered repertoire of teary choruses is effectively effaced by a new score, acquiring familiarity through the inviting enthusiasm of its repetition. By the end of the evening, those approaching their bedtime are delightedly seat-shuffling and wand-waving to its catchiest hook, an exhortation to “follow the yellow to get to Oz”. Or, possibly, ‘Us’. One of the subtler delights of the play’s relocation is this phonetic punning on the people who make the home.
Because, after all, this is populist theatre in the best sense, literally reaching out into the auditorium by situating the imaginary yellow bricks between its seats (and – happily – providing the misdirection required for the changing scenery).
In this respect, I mean no disrespect by comparing it to CBeebies and CBBC at their best (the latter’s Hacker T. Dog is a bona fide genius). There is a real art in fashioning fare engaging to children without provoking parental ennui.
At the heart of this art is Anne O’Riordan’s sparky Dorothy, a Marmalade Atkins with Irish blood and Lancastrian heart, belting in the best sense of the word, embodying indefatigability without precocity. Required in every scene, she puts in a dauntless, unflagging performance, one that keeps the audience alongside her inadvertent witch slaughter as she completes her journeys, literal and emotional.
Her foils are just as sharp, cutting through the fond impressions of their Yuletide television forebears, and fashioning something cut from a different cotton. David Heywood brings the merest hint of Rik Mayall’s anarchy to his intelligently-played scarecrow, Thom Petty imbues his canny portrayal with an aesthete’s sensibility and Alexander Bean’s Brummie lion wonderfully embodies the more tongue-tied in the audience, encouraging even the diffident to the party.
It’s an invitation that could hardly be declined by anyone who had a heart. Even a tin one.
Photos by The Other Richard
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz is on until December 31, 2018. For more information, click here.