Back in August the wildly creative and very aptly named Creation Theatre premiered their show Alice: A Virtual Theme Park which made very good use of technology to reinvent the children’s classic and bring it to life for the digital age. I thoroughly enjoyed this, so was intrigued as to whether they could repeat their success with their current Christmas show The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz which is being streamed live, thus retaining a central part of the theatrical dynamic. The strap line for the show is “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”; well, they got that right.
Not only are we not in Kansas, we’re not even in America as this modernised, digitised version seems to start in a British girl’s bedroom, though it swiftly moves to an online world which owes a huge design debt to some early video games. The plotline is familiar enough, though it relies more heavily on L. Frank Baum’s original than the famous film version and reincorporates elements that the latter omitted – it’s a moot point whether that improves things or not; wot, no ruby slippers?? Some of the less politically incorrect aspects have disappeared and you certainly know you’re in modern times when Dorothy muses that she’d rather call an Uber than walk along the yellow brick road and the Wicked Witch is discovered watching Tik Tok and posting videos on You Tube; by the way don’t miss out on the hilarious post credits sequence which features her latest upload.
Neither is Dorothy (Chloe Lemonius) the winsome Judy Garland figure we have grown up with; here she’s rather more feisty, even bolshie and in one scene gets into a fury quite inconceivable in Hollywood’s version. All the other characters are pretty much as we remember them although with radically redesigned visual makeovers. Dharmesh Patel, Tom Richardson and Simon Yadoo are her companions travelling to the Emerald City, engaging in rather more “banter” than might be remembered and with a slant towards more modern sensibilities; the Tin Man, for instance, is no longer a metal axe wielding woodcutter but a rather clapped out computer. The Wicked Witch (Anabelle Terry) definitely ignores the “rules” of traditional dress and appearance while her counterpart also defies convention by turning out to be none other than cabaret artiste extraordinaire Le Gateau Chocolat (making a guest appearance, though presumably on film).
Designer Ryan Lawson Laight and adaptor/director Garai Jones have a field day with the way the show looks making it a riot of colour and spectacle. I did feel that sometimes style got in the way of substance as effect piled on effect and the storyline was in danger of getting swamped, especially if it isn’t a story with which you are familiar already. For instance, a bunch of sock puppets represented the Munchkins but I really only understood who and what they were because of prior knowledge. Other modern referencing occurs when a rather nasty strain of virus has to be defeated by the Lion and when the Scarecrow and Tin Man are smashed to pieces they are rebuilt with online graphics very reminiscent of Tetris. There’s tinkly background music which accompanies a lot of the action – à la every computer game ever – with some clever referencing of “Greensleeves” at the Emerald City (geddit?) but which, to me anyway, was mostly annoying. Well done though to Matt Eaton for keeping within the show’s overall concept.
The thing that did disappoint me (and which was so strong in the Alice show) were the meagre attempts to integrate the audience into the action. True one of the viewers at home had to supply a Toto substitute in her cat – as there were no dogs in evidence – but as this wasn’t really developed much further it was a moment that fell rather flat. For the most part though, we became sedentary watchers which made it seem like a much longer evening than it actually was. However, top marks for innovation and visual bravura, and apart from the odd sticky moment, execution. It’s also nice to see the company offering an after-show extension in the form of party rooms which audience members can book in advance to catch up with friends and family who have attended. I’ve no doubt the Hollywood film will be on TV sometime over Christmas – that is the law, isn’t it? – or you could even read your way through Baum’s books – did you know he wrote 14 of them between 1900 and 1920? Or, of course you can sit back with a mince pie or two and enjoy Creation Theatre’s modern day reimagining. In the end, despite the modernisations the moral heart of the story is still intact; that intelligence, compassion and courage are qualities inside us all and that, really, “There’s no place like home”– just as well this Christmas as there aren’t very many other options!
The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz can be accessed via Creation Theatre’s website – click here
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