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Review: The Wizard of Oz (Birmingham Rep)

Birmingham Rep bring the magical world of the Wizard of Oz to thrilling life this Christmas

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Wizard of Oz ensemble
© Graeme Braidwood

Birmingham Repertory's Christmas production is an electrifyingly bold reworking of The Wizard of Oz.

Directed by Liam Steel, it takes L Frank Baum's novel and the classic 1939 movie, picks them up, throws them around and allows them to land in a different guise. The show has all the essential elements which are instantly recognizable to Oz fans but everything is just a little bit different.

It begins fairly traditionally with Chisara Agor's Dorothy running away from home after the evil neighbour Miss Gulch takes her dog Toto. Then the tornado hits, the house is caught in the eye of the storm and Dorothy, together with Toto, lands in Oz. Anyone who has read the novel or seen the film which catapulted Judy Garland into stardom and created a string of memorable songs will know they are both pretty imaginative and it would be tempting for any theatre director and designer to simply follow their yellow brick roads. But instead this production creates a whole new world of Oz.

Here, a rainbow is created by neon lit multicoloured door frames, Munchkins are puppets and that yellow brick road becomes a series of brightly lit yellow stairs. The classic song "Over the Rainbow" clearly provides inspiration for the land of Oz as each chapter of the story takes on its own colour.

As she passes through these different scenes, Dorothy meets her new friends Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion and battles with the Wicked Witch of the West here played by a man. Jos Vantyler is hideously nasty as the evil witch – with his green face, black patent high heeled boots and broomstick, he's a mix between drag artist, panto baddy and your worst nightmare. Vanquished by Dorothy, he shrieks "I'm melting" and disappears before our eyes.

Kelly Agbowu is adorable as the cowardly Lion determined to find courage. As she creeps along behind the others, afraid to face the horrors, we all know she will be the one to lead them in the end. Dillon Scott-Lewis is the frequently rusting Tin Man who is the soppiest in the crew and yet believes he doesn't have a heart. And Ed Wade is the ever loveable Scarecrow who is Dorothy's first friend and prepared to risk all to save her.

Designer Angela Davies and costume and puppet designer Samuel Wyer create countless unforgettable moments with giant Dementor-like figures leading the group through the forest to the Wicked Witch's castle, monkeys flying through the trees and a mighty figure with glowing green eyes at the heart of the Emerald City – the mythical Wizard of Oz.

Toto is played by three different dogs and a puppet and is a clear favourite with the audience but then who can resist a cute animal scene?

There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, many very diverse adaptations of the Oz tale. This Birmingham Rep production is true to the story, this is no Wicked, but it dares to step off the yellow footpath and try something different. In doing so, it creates a Wizard of Oz for a new generation – but also gives those of us who are familiar with its previous iterations a fresh take on a classic tale.