Tag Archives: Liam Steel

Friends of Dorothy

THE WIZARD OF OZ

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 29th November, 2018

 

Frank Baum’s classic tale comes to Birmingham in this vibrant new production from director Liam Steel. Updating the framing story of Dorothy and her aunt and uncle eking out a living on a farm to the 1950s, the early scenes of this production look like a John Steinbeck and sound like a Tennessee Williams – especially when Miss Gulch appears, drawling like a Southern belle, lording it over the po’ folk. The opening scenes serve to set up what is to come, when our plucky heroine finds herself transported to a magical land, just as elements from our everyday lives filter into our dreams.  It’s downbeat, dramatic stuff, until Dorothy (a superlative Chisara Agor) sits on her bed and sings Over The Rainbow, her face sweetly optimistic, her voice rich and soulful.  This is the first ‘wow’ moment of the evening.  There are more to come.

The tornado that drops the house on the Wicked Witch of the East, is stylistically presented, with swirling stagehands dismantling the farmhouse shack the Gale family calls home.  The frame of the house remains present throughout, a centrepiece of the set, just as home is ever at the forefront of Dorothy’s thoughts, which is where we are, in effect, in Dorothy’s noggin all along.  Sorry, if that’s a spoiler.

Chisara Agor as Dorothy_Wizard of Oz_c Graeme Braidwood

Gale force! Chisara Agor as Dorothy (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Chisara Agor is matched by an excellent ensemble, ranging from Dillon Scott-Lewis’s pop-and-locking, robotic Tin Man to Kelly Agbowu’s cowardly Lion, who brings the house down with her singing voice rather than her roar.  Shanay Holmes’s good witch Glinda channels the likes of Mariah and Whitney for her big numbers – the singing in this production is top notch, inducing shivers down your spine.   Jos Vantyler’s Wicked Witch of the West, with cheekbones for days and the kinkiest boots is a bitter and twisted delight, but I fell in love with Scarecrow, played by an apparently boneless Ed Wade, who brings an astonishing physicality to the role.

Jos Vantyler as Wicked Witch_c Graeme Braidwood

Wicked! Jos Vantyler (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

The great and powerful Lorna Laidlaw doubles as the charlatan Professor Marvel, gesticulating grandly over a crystal ball, and as the eponymous Wizard, playing both with humour and warmth.

The production elements are as impressive as the cast.  Liam Steel’s Oz seems to be heavily influenced by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with its diva-esque apple trees and flamboyant carnivorous plants, courtesy of some brilliant design work from Angela Davies and costumes by Samuel Wyer.  The drag queen aesthetic is strong in this one.  The Emerald City is a stylish, avant garde place, like the swishiest nightclub in the gay village.  The familiar and well-worn songs are given new, contemporary arrangements by musical director George Dyer, refreshing them like a new coat of paint, but retaining, thank goodness, the catchy tunes and witty lyrics of Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.

With charming, sometimes scary, puppetry, and plenty of inventive scenic ideas, this production pulls off the magic trick of meeting audience expectations of the famous story while providing enough that is fresh and new and surprising to renew our acquaintance with Baum’s timeless brilliance.  The REP has gone that extra mile along the yellow brick road to produce this magical spectacle.  A wonderfully inclusive show for all the family, it will make you laugh and it will melt your heart like water on a wicked witch.

Spell-binding.

Lorna Laidlaw as The Wizard of Oz and Ed Wade as Scarecrow_c Graeme Braidwood

Wizard! Lorna Laidlaw as Oz and Ed Wade as the Scarecrow (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Magic Moments

WINNIE AND WILBUR

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017

 

The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.

Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson).  She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example.  The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect.  A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight.  Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.

Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.

Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal.  Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner.  Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.

She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble.  Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy.  Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home.  Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma.  The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes.  The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.

I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.

Sophie Russell (Winnie), Ben Thompson (Wilbur) and Ed Thorpe

Sophie Russell and Ben Thompson (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Housebound

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 17th March, 2014 

 

To the infectious strains of the bustling overture, courtiers in evening dress play out scenes of drunkenness and indulgence.  One figure stands out.  Not only does he not join in, he is trapped and seeking an escape.

So begins English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s final work for the stage.  Whenever I see this piece, I look forward to the opening.  How will they do the serpent (or ‘monster’) that is chasing the Prince?  I’ve seen puppets.  I’ve seen a man in a kind of Godzilla costume.  Here, director Liam Steel opts for a very human giant snake, a conga line of courtiers that back Tamino against a wall.  It’s symbolic of his desire to quit the hedonistic lifestyle that threatens to consume him.  I think.

The fariytale story is played out on a set with three levels and lots of doors.  It’s like a darkened room in a stately home – a haunted house: hands pop up through little trapdoors to bring on a range of props, like Thing in The Addams Family.  The set fits some parts of the story better than others.  The scene where Tamino summons woodland creatures loses its magic when its just the courtiers in masquerade.  The Queen of the Night steps through a large mirror and fills the stage with the train of her dress in a spectacular moment but at other times the action seems confined by its interior-ness, and too housebound.  Also, the raised levels of the stage seem to amplify every footfall – it’s very noisy.

Nicholas Sharratt is a dependable Tamino and there is enjoyable interplay between him and Wyn Penacregg’s Papageno.  The first act is a lot of fun.  The Queen’s three ladies (Camilla Roberts, Amy J Payne, Helen Johnson) camp it up nicely in contrast with the staid and pompous goings on in the Temple during the second act.  With spoken dialogue rather than recitative, it soon becomes apparent who are the stronger actors.

As bird-catcher Papageno, Wyn Penacregg is a constant delight, using his Welsh accent to support the comedy of his lines.  His duet with Pamina (Anna Patalong) is just lovely, and both arias by Laure Meloy’s Queen are highlights.  Under the baton of Michael Rosewell, the orchestra plays spiritedly, although I feel the scene where Papgeno contemplates suicide is a little rushed.  The most beautiful moment is the achingly poignant aria by Pamina, when she can’t understand why Tamino won’t speak to her (he’s being tested, you see, as part of the initiation into a kind of masonic cult).  Anna Patalong is heartbreakingly good here.

Andrew Slater’s Sarastro, the cult leader, is competent, like a stern uncle, but doesn’t get the hairs on your neck stirring with his big bass moments – and I think that’s symptomatic of the production as a whole.  It’s well presented and performed but lacks that spark of magic to enchant us and help us overlook the ropeyness of Schikaneder’s plot.

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