The Wizard of Oz

"Follow the ‘yellow route’ back to West Berkshire for this quirky reinvention of a classic tale! "

Last night I returned to The Watermill Theatre for another tale about a wizard, but this time for their completely new version of The Wizard of Oz. Forget what you already know about Dorothy, her friends, Judy Garland and the songs…this is a new version, and very good it is too!

This version starts off in the UK, not the usual setting of Kansas, and follows teenager Dot. Dot is struggling. She is studying her GCSE’s and doesn’t fit it.  She lives with Aunty Em, and Toto the dog. The show starts off in Dot’s bedroom, following her imaginary world, complete with a messy teenage ‘floor-drobe’, and Aunty Em returning from her long busy shift at a care home to see that Dot has not tidied her room, or taken Toto out for a walk. Who doesn’t know a teenager like this?! 

Dot is persuaded to take Toto out to get some fresh air, and this is when we start to see some more familiar elements to the story. It’s rainy and windy….whilst out, she lets Toto off the lead, and very soon, is searching for him.  She gets lost, and then gets caught in a hurricane….

The hurricane effects on this tiny compact stage, were extremely effective, with lighting, and choreography involving some of the small cast, but we were left in no doubt as to what was happening. 

Dot then arrives in Oz. Munchkinland, to be precise. 

The production, with its cast of just 6 actors, effortlessly portrayed the story. Aside from Annabel Marlow, who plays Dot, the other actors Angela Caesar, Sally Cheng, Chris Coxon, James Gulliford, and Signe Larsson play all the other characters including Aunty Em, the Wizard, Westly the Witch, and Glenda, with some lovely quirky new characters. Instead of the Scarecrow, and Lion, we have Scarrow and Lionel joining the Tinman in searching for their brain, courage and heart.  I especially liked Signe Larsson’s PA, who was a very funny officious gatekeeper to the Wizard.

In addition, this incredibly hard-working cast played the music, as this was another of the Watermill’s extremely successful actor-musician productions. And on top of that, they also operated the very effective puppetry, bringing to life Toto, the munchkins, and the quadling, (which replaces the infamous flying monkeys). 

The cast are incredible. There is not a weak link. It is not possible to single anyone out, as they play each of their many characters so well, alongside playing the music and operating the puppets. 

As Dot, Annabel Marlow shows us that she has a very bright future ahead of her. She was the original Katherine Howard in the very first Edinburgh Festival version of Six. As Dot, her vulnerability, but the growth in confidence on the journey, really shines through.

This version was written by Marietta Kirkbride, and directed by George Staight, and between them they have beautifully reimagined a familiar story into something new and fresh, but still magical. Together with Nick Barstow’s music and new songs, this is a lovely piece of theatre. Special mention should go to the design of the show by Sophie Pardon, and Dan Southwell’s puppetry, and I particularly loved the very cute Toto, and the cute but bizarre munchkins. 

I also want to mention the theatre itself, for creating a such a warm and welcoming Christmassy space.  We ate at the theatre beforehand and can recommend the restaurant, complete with it’s massive Christmas tree, and delicious food. 

This is the Watermill’s Christmas children’s show, and they have a perfect show here to bring your youngsters to this festive season. The show runs at just two hours including the interval and starts at 7pm for the evening performances which means that it is not a late night. I am not sure it’s suitable for very young children, and would think that 6/7 years old and above would be the right starting age. But my nearly 17 year old loved it, as did this 50 something year old!

This show was reviewed on the 20th November 2023.  The Wizard of Oz runs at The Watermill Theatre until the 31st December 2023.  Tickets available here: THE WIZARD OF OZ (watermill.org.uk)

Review written by Ruth Hawkins

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Photo credit: Mark Senior

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