The late, great theatre director and mentor Stephen Joseph defined theatre as "a passionate affair between actors and audience". It is clearly not a philosophy to which Jude Kelly subscribes in her new production of The Wizard of Oz, in which the actors are largely confined to being observed through a gauze opaquely and heard only through the intervention of mikes.
The hard drive of this Wizard is its ostentatious expenditure on technology. On a very wide stage, we have another of JK's three-screen sets (remember Singin in the Rain?), so before the show gets cranked up, it's a bit like Cinerama. In addition to the screens, there are a variety of gauzes at different depths to enable settings to be projected giving a 3-D effect. Everything is projected upon - including the stage floor, of course, with the yellow brick road - with a view to creating spectacular effects. Unfortunately, the technology isn't perfect: actors also get projected upon, bewilderingly, and the gauzes are insufficient to black out stage-hands re-setting furniture behind them or the solid flesh incarnation of the good witch walking on behind the gauze which carries her image descending in a bubble from the flies. Magic, alas, it ain't.
With Munchkins, too, there's an obvious problem, which the production seeks to solve with a combination of large images of kids' faces thrown on to the cyclorama and various rather small puppets on stage. Close-up photographs show the puppets to be delightfully sculpted, but on stage - peeping out of hedges, over the top of grassy knolls, round the corners of any available object and strung on to the four sides of a trolley wheeled around the stage by a bloke sitting inside trying gamely to cope with the manipulation - they are insufficiently differentiated to make their impact.
Touted as "a new look" at The Wizard, with this production, it's evident that nobody thought to return to source. It is as if Jude Kelly has seated her cast in front of the motion picture version and given instructions to imitate that as closely as possible. Unfortunately, fine actress though Charlie Hayes may very well be, it does seem perverse to cast someone with such a thin voice, whose natural talent for movement doesn't allow her to walk-on-the-spot convincingly, in the role of Dorothy. (In fairness, it can't have helped to lumber her with sticking her right arm up the backside of a prosthetic Toto - a cross between Spit the Dog and Emu - and telling her to keep its head nodding and its tail wagging.)
Alan Cowan, Simon Quarterman and Tony Timberlake - as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion - give perfectly respectable, but quite uninspired, readings of their roles, as, indeed, do the rest of the cast. It's difficult to escape the conclusion, however, that, whatever their efforts, the cast are not the main focus of the project. And they should be.
PS Forget Patrick Stewart's much-featured appearance on tape as the "Virtual Wizard". It's just loud.
- Ian Watson