A Wizard wheeze for Rebecca as she lands starring role

Nick Ahad Unlike those who dream of being Dorothy, the woman actually playing the iconic role has no memories of seeing The Wizard of Oz as a child.

"I can't remember sitting down and watching any of those old classic movies when I was a kid," says Rochdale-born Helen Owen, who will play the lead in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's production of The Wizard of Oz.

"I'm sure I will have seen it when I was a kid – I know the story – but I'm not one of those people who has sat down and watched it over and over again."

Unfortunately for Helen, the world is full off people who have watched the movie over. And over. And over.

Which meant that when she took the part made famous by Judy Garland, Helen was going to have to go some to please the enthusiastic fans of the movie who think of the role as sacrosanct.

"Because I wasn't that familiar with the film, I wasn't really daunted by taking the part," says Helen.

"It was only when I got the script and saw that Dorothy is on stage for more or less the entire play that I really started to get nervous about it."

For her audition, 26-year-old Helen, performed the song that made a mega-star of Judy Garland, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

"It was slightly scary, but I just thought 'I'll be okay' and got on with it."

The play is a co-production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Birmingham Rep. The two theatres decided to pool their resources in the run up to last Christmas season and produce two plays - last year at the Playhouse the Christmas show was Alice in Wonderland, directed by Ian Brown, while Birmingham staged The Wizard of Oz.

This year the two theatres have swapped over, with Birmingham staging Brown's Alice and the Playhouse welcoming Rachel Kavanaugh, the artistic director of Birmingham who is at the helm of The Wizard of Oz.

When it was in Birmingham last year, the production received critical and public acclaim, with Helen achieving the seemingly impossible feat of satisfying the fans who feel such an ownership of the story and the character she was playing.

When we meet, she is in Leeds and has been back in rehearsals for two weeks, with the same cast that performed in Birmingham last Christmas.

A young-looking 26-year-old, she appears as excited as a kid at Christmas.

"It feels a bit like a reunion at the minute, being back together with the cast again," she says. "The three boys (the actors who play the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion) are like my big brothers, so getting back together in the rehearsal room has been great."

When she secured the role

of Dorothy, it was a dream come true to be playing a lead in a musical. After university,

she attended Guildford School of Acting, and on graduation secured a role in the chorus of the London West End hit Mamma Mia.

From the chorus of the Abba musical, Helen won the lead role in The Wizard of Oz.

Although she was previously unaware of the magnitude of

the role she had won, she quickly came to realise how significant a part she was to play.

Any actor taking on the part couldn't help but be daunted by it. For an actor who was just out of drama school and taking on her second job, one would expect the very idea to be a terrifying prospect. Yet Helen took it in her stride.

"I realised that I had to just not think about it," she says.

"I had to forget about everything Judy Garland had done – you can't think about it as a part that someone else has done, you just have to think about it as a character you're playing."

So Helen's Dorothy is a different one to Judy Garland's?

"She is still a feisty young girl. Judy Garland's accent and dialect wasn't really very much like a Kansas accent, but mine is.

"Last year, before I went into rehearsals, it was a little bit daunting, but as I got into rehearsals, I just got into the part and didn't really think about all the other stuff that comes with playing Dorothy."

How about now that she is returning to the role, a more experienced and wiser actor?

"It's the same really. The truth is I've just been looking forward to coming back and getting to play the part again," she says.

"I love rehearsals, but the way audiences were reacting last year – I just can't wait for the show to start now."

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to Feb 3.

If not the panto...

Other alternatives to panto in the theatres of the region during the festive season include:

l Fiddler On the Roof, Sheffield Crucible. The famous musical features Henry Goodman, a

bona-fide Broadway star, in the lead role of Tevye. To Jan 20.

0114 2496000, www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

l Christmas Crackers, Hull Truck Theatre. John Godber's latest play tells the story of two nurses who work in a hospital Accident and Emergency department who take a trip to Prague. Dec 7 to Jan 20. 01482 323638, www.hulltruck.co.uk

l Flat Stanley, West Yorkshire Playhouse. For the past couple of years the Playhouse has provided an adult alternative to panto in its Courtyard Theatre. This year it's the turn of the youngsters to have another option, with the adaptation of this children's novel. Dec 7 to Jan 13. 0113 2137700, www.wyp.org.uk