The Wizard of Oz at Leeds Playhouse: A stunning five-star show, says Nick Ahad

Sam Harrison (Tin Man) in The Wizard of Oz at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by The Other Richard
Sam Harrison (Tin Man) in The Wizard of Oz at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by The Other Richard
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Director James Brining is at the helm this year’s big Christmas show in a newly refurbished Leeds Playhouse and he has brought to the theatre the most joyful, heart-warming and funny version of this story of the past two decades. (And it has been done thrice in this space in that time).

Brining uses John Kane’s witty 1985 RSC script which strikes just the right balance between sincerity and irony to be enjoyed on a number of levels.

Lucy Sherman (Dorothy) in The Wizard of Oz. Photography by The Other Richard

Lucy Sherman (Dorothy) in The Wizard of Oz. Photography by The Other Richard

One of the most perfectly structured stories in film history, translating the tale to the stage is tricky because we all have such a vivid picture in our heads thanks to Judy Garland and friends.

James Brining on his vision behind new Leeds Playhouse production of Wizard of Oz
Brining brings new takes to many of the characters, showing us their stories anew. Making Aunt Em and Uncle Henry a mixed race couple, for example, immediately deepens their story. It also gives the mean old Miss Gulch a possible motivation for being quite so vituperative towards such a couple in early 20th century Kansas. Similarly, the Scarecrow being played by Eleanor Sutton motivates her desire to be seen to have a brain in a man’s world. It all helps to deepen the story.

The vital thing about the Christmas show at any theatre is also of course the need for spectacle to accompany the story and this production seriously delivers on that front.

It is remarkable how a director who understands this unwieldy stage can make it seem easy. The set – spectacularly designed by Simon Higlett – looks as epic as you would hope and gloriously filmic.

The role of Dorothy is being shared by two young actors, Lucy Sherman and Agatha Meehan. On press night Sherman displayed some serious acting chops and showed little nerves at approaching the iconic songs and scenes she has to tackle in the role. The performances all round are full of joy, Marcus Ayton as Lion has an absolute ball, as do the audience when a real life Toto arrives to steal every scene in which the doggie appears.

The pace will tighten in the sometimes slow first act as the production goes on, but this is a gloriously technicolour way to kick off the theatrical festive season.

Rating: 5/5

To January 25.