REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz, Playbox Theatre

Natasha Chapple as Dorothy meets the Munchkins

Steve Sutherland reviews Playbox Theatre’s Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz at the Dream Factory, Warwick

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Warwick anymore…

Last year this time they took us down the rabbit hole in their transformative Alice In Wonderland, and this year, for their latest Christmas extravaganza, Playbox are taking us over the rainbow to the merry old Land Of Oz.

I still recall as a nipper being stunned in the cinema when the movie suddenly switched from black and white to colour, and director Mary King’s new production cleverly achieves a similar mesmeric effect. One moment we’re on a small, dusty, storm-threatened Kansas farm, the next we’re transported by twister behind the gauze to Oz, the stage a pure white box upon which each new colourful scene is projected, be it the twisted trees of the haunted forest, the slimy dungeons in the wicked witch’s castle, the towering walls of the City Of Oz, or the magnificent Oz himself, a gigantic alien head that drew many a gasp and chuckle from the sold-out crowd.

Of course, the film is so widely known and loved that it’s a mighty task for any cast to bring its iconic characters to life anew. Congrats, then, to the entire Playbox gang who pass this daunting test with flying monkeys… I mean colours. Freya Liddell plays the hassled Auntie Em and the unruffled good witch Glinda quite beautifully, Saul Greenburgh does similar justice to Uncle Henry and the guard, Noah Lukehurst is a super fallible, kind-hearted Professor/Wizard, and Eilidh Evans’ cackling Miss Gultch/ Wicked Witch of The West gave Margret Hamilton’s demonic movie version such a run for her (black)magic that the little uns in the row in front were cowering in their seats.

Will Dolan’s Cowardly Lion turns down the camp a notch from the movie while tuning up the grrrrowls and whimpers winningly, while Charlie Davis’ scarecrow is all unknowing homespun wisdom (“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking”) and cheerful comic tumbles. I’ve always found the Tin Man the hardest of the lot to empathise with, probably because his companion pair are off-the-scale endearing, so Jo Lydick‘s sympathetic Tin Man is a delightful surprise, a rusty, clanking tour-de-force. The bit where he tells the travellers how he got to be tin, one lopped-off limb after another, is one of the show’s many high spots. “You certainly were persistent,” offers Scarecrow.

Then there’s Dorothy. Recently Matilda on the West End Stage, Natasha Chapple returns to Playbox for a part that could pretty much have been written for her. From her opening, beautifully delivered classic Rainbow, we’re with her all the way on her adventures, her performance perfectly pitched between pluck and awe.

The Munchkins are cute, the Ozians merry, the monkeys manic, the Winkies Siberian, the apple trees feisty, the poppies deadly gorgeous… all as they should be and more, the Playbox production even reinstates the long lost Jitterbug scene (cut from the original movie, then lost in a fire) with Teagan Gough leading a cracking jazz dance sequence.

The whole ensemble is in splendid voice throughout and carries these brilliant songs with such vim and verve that it’s some sort of miracle that the rest of us in the audience manage to refrain from ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee and tra-la-la-ing along. Until the finale, that is, when we’re permitted to deliver a hearty, appreciative and thoroughly deserved ovation. Simply wonderful!