Reinventing a much-loved tale of witches and wizards all too familiar to multi-generations of adults, with a take that connects with younger theatregoers, may seem like a tall order. But, at the Watermill, a collection of actor/musicians with a production team to match rise with relish to stage adaptor Marietta Kirkbride’s inventive new version of L Frank Baum’s masterwork.
From the get-go, as the lights rise on what is apparently a scene from a Star Trek-type adventure featuring a feisty teenage girl, who proves to be our heroine Dot, it’s clear that it’s not just Dorothy’s name that’s been ‘updated’. She is definitely not ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ as the rather sickly old nursery rhyme suggested ‘little girls’ were made of. Annabel Marlow’s vibrant red-headed Dot is a gal for our times with whom young people can identify and she and Kilbride invest her with agency. And perhaps the fact that a lighting change reveals this is all in her imagination, as she daydreams away – instead of tidying her room, as instructed by her Aunt Em (Angela Caesar in just one of three key roles) and walking her dog Toto – makes her all the more believable. No mean feat in a fairy tale!
On designer Sophia Pardon’s versatile set with its neon frame of changing coloured lights, the transformation from mundane reality to the magical land of Oz is enchanting. A bewildered and breathless Dot finds herself there as she seeks Toto, who has run away the moment she reluctantly obeys Aunt Em and tries to take him for ‘walkies’. Ali Hunter’s lighting has transformed the flora of the set from more muted natural greens to a forest of glorious rainbow colour, all connected by brilliant golden threads and ropes of light.
It’s not long before Dot meets more of the denizens of this land: early on Signe Larsson’s serenely charismatic Glenda, ‘Good’ Witch of the South, who plays a more meaty role than in the film version; and of course, as those in the know would anticipate, Dot’s future companions, each on an individual quest. Instead of actors dressed as strange beasts and unlikely incarnations, (Tinman seeking a heart, Scarecrow brains and Cowardly Lion courage), these three are closer to reality, their names more like ‘real’ individuals. ‘Sally Cheng’s ‘Scarrow’ is an empathetic woman seeking that brainpower, with just a suggestion of her name’s derivation in her garb. Chris Coxon’s Geordie ‘Tinman’ is tall, lithe and graceful despite his costume. James Gulliford’s frustrated ‘Lionel’ (the clue is in the first four letters of his name!) is desperate for courage. Notably, all three are seeking something for themselves, only Dot is seeking Toto to restore him to his home and to Aunt Em.
All are promised the chance their quest will succeed if they can journey to the Emerald City and seek the aid of the eponymous Wizard to grant their requests.
Plaudits to director Georgie Staight and composer and musical director Nick Barstow, who has come up with songs that work here as “Over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” did in the film, notably “Follow the Yellow Route”, a great travelling number for the bouncy quartet seeking the Wizard’s Emerald City (movement director Sarah Golding). All four dance up a storm and sing superbly and, of course, musical instrumental skills add to the mix as you would expect from the actor/musicians for which the Watermill is celebrated.
As for the Wizard, she is another of the characters embodied by Caesar, who also gets to be breaking bad as Westly, the new incarnation of the Wicked Witch of the West (no witch’s hat required!).
For me, the fine icing on this delicious seasonal cake is the extraordinary puppet work that does puppet designer and maker Dan Southwell (and the story) proud. The Munchkins are tiny busy frenetic beings and Toto is an extraordinarily loveable and realistic little terrier, wonderfully manipulated by puppeteers in full sight – which actually makes them more intriguing and exciting!
The most extraordinary creation is a creature called a ‘Quadling’, with wide bat-like wings, with whom I could only sympathise, as it is confined in a cage by Westly, and becomes devoted to the resourceful Dot in its gratitude the moment she takes pity on it and manages to liberate it. It’s worth going off to see The Wizard of Oz to marvel at the Quadling alone – and while it’s not possible to take the puppet home, audiences will be sure to depart with the erstwhile satisfaction of witnessing two hours of pure delight.