Review – The Wizard of Oz, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Wizard of OzIt has become our habit over a number of years now to go up to Sheffield for the first weekend of January to enjoy whatever is their Christmas show and also the Lyceum panto all on the same day. Tradition also has it that we are accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco as their main Christmas pressy from us. However, in a break from tradition, shock horror, this year we switched the panto from matinee to evening, so we started off by seeing Robert Hastie’s new production of The Wizard of Oz.

DorothyA few confessions; when I read that this was to be their Christmas show I wasn’t entirely filled with enthusiasm. There’s something about the whole Wizard of Oz concept that doesn’t really appeal. Maybe because it is such a hardy perennial I feel that it’s an unadventurous option? I’m not sure. Another confession; I’ve never really seen the film. Of course, I’ve seen clips, and I know what the Cowardly Lion is all about, and I’ve seen Judy Garland follow the yellow brick road. And I know why people want to see the wizard – because, because, because, because…..because. Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to see the full show of something you’ve only ever caught extracts from before. It’s like being familiar with old show tunes but never knowing their context within their original musical show, which is something I love exploring – it’s great for stopping gaps in your general knowledge.

FarmhandsYou, of course, gentle reader, are totally au fait with the story of the Wizard of Oz, so there’s probably not much I can tell you about it. Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her “only friend in the world”, Toto the dog (not entirely true; she gets on fine with the farmhands, Hickory, Zeke and Hunk, but that’s by the by). Horrid neighbour Miss Gulch accuses Toto of having bitten her (and if you were Toto, so would you) and she has a lawsuit for the dog to be taken away and dealt with – that’s one helluva euphemism. But Dorothy’s not going to take that lying down. After a futile attempt at escape she hides in the farmhouse where a massive storm tornado destroys the building and Dorothy wakes up in the land of Oz. As you do. In Oz, the farmhands have become the tin man, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion; Aunt Em is Glinda the Good Witch of the North; and Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West. Good of course triumphs, the Wizard is curiously revealed as something of a fraud, Dorothy manages to get back to Kansas and we all live happily ever after. Well maybe not Miss Gulch.

OzDespite my initial lack of enthusiasm, within about three minutes of the show starting I absolutely loved it and that feeling of wonderment didn’t let up all the way through, even with a couple of minor reservations. Having read a synopsis of the film I believe this is a very fair and faithful representation of that MGM masterpiece; so if the story isn’t perfect then I guess the film isn’t either. On reflection, it’s quite a slight tale, and a disproportionately long part of it is taken up with Dorothy meeting her three companions along the yellow brick road, and for me that did sag a little. Trouble is, that’s probably also the most famous part of the film so it wouldn’t be right to make a few cuts here and there along that particular journey to the Emerald City. There’s also a song number – The Jitterbug – that I believe was dropped from the film but has been reinstated in later stage versions. Whilst the staging of it was exquisite – more of which shortly – the song itself was one of those rather self-seeking stagey shindigs performed for its own benefit and not really furthering the story along. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have minded not seeing it.

Off to see the wizardHowever, that staging… hats off to Janet Bird for her design because it’s superb in its simplicity and effectiveness. I won’t give a detailed description of it because the transformation from Kansas to Oz is one of the show’s best surprises. Suffice to say, in a world of special effects and CGI it’s a delight to see something that is basically very straightforward and almost old-fashioned work to such a tremendous effect. She must have also had a plenty of fun creating all those different types of costumes; the farmy, Midwest domestic clothes, the outrageous witches, the scarecrow, tinman and lion, and of course the Munchkins, who all looked adorable – which is what Munchkins are meant to do, or so I understand. Richard Howell’s lighting also plays a significant and inventive role in creating with world of Oz – especially with its delineation of the Yellow Brick Road, and also in the almost disco-style ultra violet light of the Jitterbug scene. And Toby Higgins’ backstage band of ten musicians thwack out these well-known tunes with razor-sharp vitality and beautiful arrangements.

Cowardly Lion and palsAt the heart of the show is Dorothy; it’s a very big role and she’s rarely out of the action. Gabrielle Brooks impresses right from the start with her wide-eyed innocence and firm sense of justice and kindness. She has a wonderful singing voice and reduced Lord Prosecco to tears with her rendition of Over the Rainbow (oops, that’s me in trouble). I’m sure Ms Brooks can no longer be classified a “kid” but she really conveys a moving illusion of childhood in her performance. I already knew that Sophia Nomvete was a great performer, having had her move me to tears in The Color Purple, and once again she gives a beautiful, gutsy, funny performance as Aunt Em and Glinda. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Jonathan Broadbent again as he had been so toe-curlingly hilarious The Norman Conquests last year in Chichester, and he was just perfect as the Cowardly Lion, a genuinely funny and touching performance. Andrew Langtree and Max Parker as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man also give very good performances as did Michael Matus in his roles, particularly as the Oz Gatekeeper, a maniacal Rottweiler if ever there was one. Catrin Aaron is a terrific baddie as both Miss Gulch and the witch, and Ryan Ellsworth a rather mysterious Professor Marvel, and suitably understated Wizard. I’m not sure whether we saw the Yellow Brick Road Team or the Emerald City Team of munchkins, but they were great, throwing themselves into their song with true relish. And the adult ensemble too were excellent with their enthusiasm, their musicality and conveying the sheer joy of this very positive show.

GlindaBut for true grit and determination, and a performance like few others I’ve seen, Rhiannon Wallace, the puppeteer who performed Toto in Oz absolutely stole the show. Oz Toto is a scruffy urchin in comparison with Kansas Toto, who struck me as being rather superior. Ms Wallace’s facial expressions constantly changing to portray the dog’s emotions was such an effective method of fully creating this character who, after all, is very central to the plot. Ms Wallace must be a contortionist to bend down constantly and get herself into all the little nooks and crannies that Toto finds home. A memorable performance!

Wicked WitchThe Wizard of Oz has been new Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s first Christmas show at the Crucible and, on this form, the tremendous standard set by Daniel Evans in the past looks very likely to continue. Demand has meant that the production is extending by a week, so you have just over a week to try to get to see it – and it’s really worth your effort. Congratulations all round for a great show!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Norman Conquests, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th October 2017

The Norman ConquestsSome scenes are just iconic, aren’t they? Lord Liverpool (who accompanied us on this full-day outing to see all three of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, along with the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor & Mrs Plum) and I both vividly remember watching the 1970s TV version of Table Manners and seeing Tom Conti wax lyrical about the delights of Puffa Puffa Rice. You don’t get that sort of entertainment any more.

NC Annie in Round and Round the GardenAt least, not till now, with Blanche McIntyre’s immense new production of this wonderful trilogy gracing the stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a nod to its original layout, they’ve converted the back of the set to take more seating, so that the plays are now performed in the round. Having had a miserable experience with “on stage seating” at the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III a couple of years ago, I’m a great believer in once bitten twice shy and so we happily occupied the centre of Row C of the regular seating.

NC Sarah and Annie in Living TogetherIn case you don’t know, Annie has arranged that her nice-but-dull brother Reg and his uptight control freak of a wife Sarah will come down for the weekend to look after Mother whilst Annie has a much-deserved weekend away for a rest. So why is her brother-in-law Norman (married to her sister Ruth) lurking in the bushes of their overgrown garden? Is there really an assistant librarian’s convention that weekend? And what about vet Tom, who holds a candle for Annie but is too emotionally reserved to do anything about it? He keeps coming over to check on Annie’s pussy (yes, I know it sounds as though it’s written by Mrs Slocombe, but bear with me). The pussy’s in the tree with a septic paw, and all Tom can do is shout “Pussy!” occasionally. Over the course of the weekend, all is revealed; no one finds happiness but just maybe they might in the future….

NC Norman in Round and Round the GardenAyckbourn’s trilogy is beautifully structured so that you see the same story over the course of the same weekend in three different areas of the house – the living room, the dining room and the garden. Ayckbourn wrote all three plays concurrently, in chronological order; starting with Act One Scene One of Round and Round the Garden (5.30pm Saturday), then the first scene of Table Manners (6pm) and then the first scene of Living Together (6.30pm). In that way he was able to accompany Norman on his journey of havoc in the same sequence that our eponymous hero does. By the time we reach the final scene of Round and Round the Garden at 9am on Monday, we have a full picture of all the intrigues and misunderstandings that took place the whole weekend. Miss one of the plays out, and you’ll only get half an appreciation of what really went on.

NC Annie and Norman in Table MannersIt’s an absolute delight to observe how the three plays interlock. There are overlapping action moments like Reg exiting one room and entering another with a waste paper basket, and Tom exiting and entering bellowing his false and hearty laugh. There are other moments where a character has changed costume for no explicable reason, until you discover the reason why in another of the plays. Ayckbourn also sets up deliberately misleading threads for the audience. There’s more than one occasion where a character reflects that they may have upset someone or said the wrong thing; the audience makes an assumption as to what that might be, only to watch one of the other plays and find themselves proved totally wrong. It’s like a stand-up comedian with a routine full of callbacks that you don’t appreciate until they hit you unexpectedly. Round and Round the Garden contains one scene of misunderstanding between Tom and Ruth that is so blissfully executed and that leads on to further scenes of jaw-droppingly inappropriate behaviour that it’s worth the ticket price for all three shows on its own. If you miss it, then much of what happens later on in the other plays will remain a mystery.

NC Tom and Reg in Round and Round the GardenWe saw all three plays on the one day, in true theatrefest style. Living Together was on first (11am – such a treat), with Table Manners at the standard matinee time and Round and Round the Garden in the evening. Whatever you do, see the garden play last. Maybe, on reflection, you should see Table Manners first; that way the character of Norman is kept back from you till the last possible moment.

NC Annie in Living TogetherIt’s interesting to see how the plays have dated just a little in some respects. Each contains a moment of violence which is played primarily for comic effect; two of those occasions you could describe as “domestic violence”, and each time Norman is the victim. Ayckbourn always did have the knack of making you laugh out loud and then cover your face with shame for laughing. He honed that skill with developing subtlety over the years; but back in 1973 it was a little less sophisticated. At one point, Ruth uses the word “halfwit” as an insult, and it stood out to me as being maybe acceptable for a previous era but not enlightened enough for today. However, the age-old themes of marital (dis)harmony, naughty weekends away and an inability to express one’s feelings are never going to go away; nor is the mention of “East Grinstead” ever going to create anything other than risible scorn, especially to an audience of Sussex-siders.

NC Norman and Sarah in Round and Round the GardenSimon Higlett’s design preserves a hint of home counties garden at the edges (herbaceous borders I presume) for all three plays, whilst creating homely and slightly drab areas for the living and dining rooms. Would I be a tad picky if I were to suggest a larger dining table might have helped sight lines during Table Manners? From my seat I couldn’t see the visual prankstering between Norman and Tom which forms a considerable part of the comedy of the Act Two Scene One dinner fiasco, because Sarah obstructed my view. Congratulations to Lizzie Frankl’s props department for recreating a Puffa Puffa Rice box, seeing as how they haven’t been sold since 1975.

NC Annie and Reg in Table MannersIn best Ayckbournian tradition, the cast make a brilliant ensemble, with no one actor or character standing out as the star; everyone gets his or her own magic moments. Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg reminded me of the Harry Enfield father-in-law character, with his ghastly positivity, nasty driving gloves and endless insistence on everyone playing his wretched game – although, to be fair, I thought it sounded quite fun. I loved his proof that chess is no more realistic than any other game – that was the best mincing diagonal bishop ever. Sarah Hadland’s Sarah couldn’t be more different, with the white knuckled tension she brings to almost every scene. Rattling through her lines with unnerving urgency, she’s brilliant at playing that bitter, thwarted, disappointed housewife, only occasionally allowing herself a moment or two of release – such as at the end of Living Together, when the subject of Bournemouth crops up. Sarah’s grand moment of comedy comes with trying to seat everyone around the dinner table – her middle-class pretensions ruined by a bunch of unruly co-diners who don’t give a stuff about etiquette.

NC Tom in Living TogetherAs Annie, Jemima Rooper (a mischievous Elvira to Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati a few years ago) brings a vulnerable charm to the role, nicely blending the tomboy with the coquette as she stuffs her fists into the pockets of her shapelessly comfy old jumper that hides the alluring party frock underneath. Annie runs the gamut of emotions A to, well not quite Z but a long way down the alphabet. Flirtatious, furious, apologetic, tentative, embarrassed; these are just some of the moods that Ms Rooper uses to represent this very put-upon person whose glimmers of hope for the future are slowly being extinguished. As her wannabe suitor Tom, John Hollingworth cuts a perfectly ungainly figure; the occasions where Tom’s inability to understand the rules of a game or get a joke are genuinely hilarious, as you see the cogs turn behind Mr Hollingworth’s eyes but no ratchets engage. The physical comedy of his scene with Ruth, which ends up with them rolling down the side of the garden is just superb, as is his public-school fisticuffs mistaken defence of Annie at the dinner table. You know someone is getting the role right when the audience just affectionately groans when Mr Hollingworth lumbers on to the stage. A fantastic comedy performance.

NC Ruth in Round and Round the GardenHattie Ledbury also gives a brilliant performance as the disdainful Ruth, accepting life with Norman as a game where she constantly loses, only occasionally allowing us to see the embers of their relationship – on the fireside rug, not inappropriately. As vanity (which she denies) doesn’t permit her to wear her glasses, she stumbles myopically on the sidelines of everyone else’s relationships and doesn’t care at all who she hurts. Trystan Gravelle’s Norman is the catalyst for the disastrous weekend; an excellent performance that allows us both to empathise with and loathe him. It’s important for the plays to work that we can believe that Norman is, strangely, irresistible in a certain light – his so-called magnetism that means women just fall for him. I could just about see it, which is perfect; too obvious and he’d just be a dumb Don Juan character. Irritating, patronising, deliberately pushing for a reaction of any sort, yet also oddly fragile, Mr Gravelle gives us a great performance of a character you’d really be better off not knowing.

NC Ruth and Norman in Living TogetherOne slight quibble; I don’t know if anyone has told the cast they’ve got to get through these plays as quickly as possible because people have trains to catch, but I was surprised how much they continued to drive on with speeches after a big laugh, rather than waiting for the laughter to die down a little. Mr Hollingworth was the best at holding back and waiting; I won’t say who was the worst! But we are all there to have fun and a laugh, it only seems fair to give us a chance to get our belly laughs out of the way before they deliver us more Ayckbourn gems.

NC The whole cast in Table MannersIf you’ve seen The Norman Conquests before – firstly, you don’t look old enough; moreover, you’ll love getting reacquainted with this dysfunctional household of various reprobates. If this is all new to you, you’ve got a wonderful combination of farce and comedy of manners with a 70s twist to look forward to. An early masterpiece by one of our greatest comic playwrights. On until 28th October; it would be great if it were to transfer too.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan