First published in The Times, Tuesday December 8 2015
It is one of the most influential children’s stories of all time. Yet, when most people hear the title the image that leaps to mind is that of Judy Garland skipping down the yellow brick road in glorious Technicolor with her three dysfunctional companions in tow. It comes as something of a shock to be reminded that the ruby slippers, the Wicked Witch’s greenish complexion and even the phrase “There’s no place like home” were all inventions of the 1939 musical film version and nothing to do with L Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel.
Caroline Bird’s new theatrical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz toys with our assumptions about the magical Land of Oz and its wider mythology, cleverly weaving forgotten characters and incidents from the book with elements of Hollywood iconography, all wrapped up in a vernacular of its own. We’re definitely not in Kansas any more: the prologue takes place in a rundown northern hamlet named Greysby, populated by elderly women who subsist on tea and schadenfreude. When the cyclone arrives and whisks Dorothy (Tessa Parr) and Toto (a sock puppet with Tourette syndrome) over the rainbow, they make their journey in a spinning waltzer car from an abandoned fairground.
The storm scene is just one of a number of well-staged set pieces that also includes Dorothy’s first encounter with the Munchkins (reimagined as a chain gang in striped prison pyjamas) and the arrival of Glinda (Alice Blundell), a politically correct yoga freak, descending to earth in a gymnastics hoop. The set designer Rhys Harman’s conception of Oz as a multi-levelled house of fun works wonders, while the disarming rinky-dink score, composed and performed live by Jeremy Bradfield, enhances the bizarre atmosphere.
If there is a debit side to Mark Calvert’s production, it is that the deliberately knowing tone means there’s less scope for magic and wonder. At times, Bird’s witty, wordy script is pitched too far over the heads of younger audience members. Still, the atmospherics and energetic characterisations, including Parr’s go-getting Dorothy, Zoe Lambert’s witch and Carl Kennedy’s sorrowful Nick Chopper, mean this trip down the yellow brick road is never dull, and overall Bird’s ambitious reboot succeeds in making us look with fresh eyes at a story that has become synonymous with the festive season.