The Wizard of Oz – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: L. Frank Baum

Music andLyrics: Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg

Director: Liam Steel

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The REP describes this production as a ‘bold yet faithful reimagining’ of the world created by L Frank Baum and forever cemented in our heads by the iconic MGM film. And the blurb does not lie – the story and the songs are familiar, but Director Liam Steel’s vision of Oz is fresh and exciting – it’s like experiencing the story for the first time.

So we have Dorothy, played by Chisara Agor with a wonderful blend of naïvety and childlike, wide-eyed wonder with a healthy dose of resilience and determination. This Dorothy may face setbacks and disappointments, but she also offers leadership to her ragtag band as she seeks to return home from Oz. Dorothy is in trouble with Miss Gulch (again) over the behaviour of her dog, Toto. She starts to believe the whole world is against her and runs away, meeting snake-oil saleswoman, Professor Marvel – played with gusto by Lorna Laidlaw. Laidlaw plays Marvel for laughs but also brings some depth to the characterisation as she tries to cold read Dorothy. Dorothy is caught up in a tornado – a striking sequence – and finds herself in Oz with, apparently, no way home having, coincidentally, flattened the Wicked Witch of the East and setting the Munchkins free (delightfully portrayed as puppets by the versatile ensemble cast).

Glinda the Good appears and sends Dorothy on a journey to the Emerald City to meet the great Wizard of Oz. Along the way she meets the scarecrow – brought to amazing physical life courtesy of the gymnastic skills of Ed Wade (he really seems to be made of nothing more substantial than straw that’s not quite tied together tightly enough) – who despite not having a brain is able to provide solutions to many of their problems; the Tin Man (Dillon Scott-Lewis) – whose hip-hop-style moves sound like they should be an anachronism but really aren’t: they’re just joyful (once he’s been oiled); and the cowardly, and wonderfully dandy, lion (Kelly Agbowu): Agbowu brings a lovely frailty to the lion’s bluster as well as a rather stylish appearance and a satisfying Lion King reference; she also has a beautiful soulful voice.

On visiting the Wizard, the adventurers are set an apparently impossible task – they must bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. She, it turns out, is mightily peeved at the death of her sister and at Glinda’s insistence that Dorothy should wear the ruby slippers of her sister and seeks to thwart our foursome at every turn. Jos Vantyler does a terrific turn as The Wicked Witch relishing the unalloyed evil she represents, stopping just short of out-and-out caricature. And so our protagonists win the day only to find Oz, Laidlaw again and still in fine form, is a fraud, albeit one who can read people and movingly provide just the encouragement and confirmation they need. By now, Dorothy understands that there’s no place like home and, her journey complete, is helped home by Glinda in a truly touching sequence as she bids farewell to her comrades-in-arms.

The performances and direction, then, are second-to-none. What of the other elements? Visually, this production is magnificent. Angela Davies’ set includes the frame of the Kansas farmhouse that remains on stage – albeit revolving and occasionally morphing – after the tornado carries the walls away. She and Steel eschew a traditional yellow brick road in favour of visually striking and incredibly effective abstract formulations. The whole plays host to the action and provides settings for those iconic songs that feel fresh as if they were written just for this production. The production is perhaps more comfortable in the optimistic first half than in the darker second as our heroes set off on their quest for the broomstick: younger children might find themselves briefly frightened before the Wicked Witch is vanquished.

The costume designs of Samuel Wyer complement the storyline perfectly; Wyer also designs the puppets of the Munchkins and Toto, all of which work superbly. Set pieces are brought to vibrant life, for example, when in the poppy field there is choreography that Busby Berkeley might have been proud to imagine.

This production is lavish but true to the story’s roots – and all the better for it. If you prefer your festive family theatre intelligent rather than full of slapstick then you can hardly do better than this fresh and outstanding production of an old favourite. You’ll leave the theatre with a warm glow having run the gamut of emotions – unmissable.

Runs Until 13 January 2019 | Image: Graeme Braidwood

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A truly bold reimagining

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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