Writer: L. Frank Baum
Adaptor: George Attwell Gerhards
Director: Lucy Bird
A lusty breeze, low-flying aircraft, proximal building work, squealing kids, park pond duck-on-duck thrashing and splashing hot beak action: Birmingham-based Paperback Theatre certainly embraces a challenge alright. And fortune smiles on the brave as Moseley Park enjoys a sun-dappled Saturday afternoon with an autumnal cusp’s nip in the air. Theatre folk are superstitious enough so why on Earth tempt the thespian fates further with an outdoor production in late September? Paperback are celebrated for their skip-rescue, stage and sets aesthetic and all the more fun for it. They’re young and just won’t be told. Bravo to that.
‘It’s Dot right? Not Dorothy, not Dotty, DOT!’ stamps a petulant teenager as another tantrum seems about to jeopardise an extended family visit to a performance of the titular Oz story. She storms off (see what they did there?) and plonks her backside on a rather ingenious great big black bag of wind, no irony intended. Transported to Oz and greeted by jubilant munchkins, she discovers her indecorous landing has squashed the Wicked Witch of the East out of existence – together with establishing a mutually acquired faux Brummie/Black Country accent or an approximation thereof which neither of the region’s denizens speak anything like. Call it an artistic licence endorsed – with three points. The witch dead already? Hmm… some plot reimagining going on here. The well-loved character and narrative essentials are devised with gutsy spirit and moments of set-piece ingenuity. The ‘Goblin Head’ guise of the Wizard, projected through an old-school megaphone is a clever prop device and ought to have the kids hiding under the picnic blankets. But sadly it was very difficult to make out what he was saying. This was another instance where Paperback should play further to their audience-immersive strengths, getting him out there and giving the little mites a damn good pant-wetter: all the more impact for the later ‘paper-tiger’ reveal.
The flakey-feathered hand-puppet crow certainly makes an impression. Producer/Directors get the final cut but weren’t there opportunities to get the kids more involved with elements of the Panto aesthetic? Call and response and so forth. They need to learn the protocols as part of their theatrical heritage. The Good vs. Bad, rags to riches, honesty and companionship, blokes dressed as women and visa versa? Perhaps best not go there.
Position and projection are essential elements in an outdoor production and demand adaptation and an exaggerated form of expression; a back turned to deliver a line is near completely lost to the audience. Paperback could learn from this. And the Greeks had to do it through masks!
There’s some not-so-subtle social messaging that is a narrative distraction if not actually condescending. The embedded appreciation of story archetype, disparate characters on a dangerous journey of self-discovery facing up to evil, finding courage, knowledge and wisdom are all there already. That is if the perpetrators of Disneynificated sanitation of the Fairy/Folk Tale canon haven’t already destroyed children’s imagination. But what of that? The Wizard of Oz (not the one with the kangaroos, Dot is informed) is a timeless story, and as mentioned early in the performance, a film version of unsurpassable cinematic invention, characters and beloved songs. Tough act to follow and Paperback give it an affectionate, spritely damned good go.
Altogether, it’s a fun and funky afternoon with a sizeable audience and exceptionally well-behaved dogs up for a lark and a crow and a jolly all-join-in reprise of Follow The Yellow Brick Road with a redeemed Dot a more rounded and amicable lass into the bargain.
Runs until 24 September 2023