Theatre: Stand by your scarecrow

THE WIZARD OF OZ WATERMILL THEATRE NEWBURY

FIRST PUBLISHED in 1900, L Frank Baum's wonderland tale fixed the image of a yellow-brick road, snaking its way through unspoilt expanses towards the wish-fulfilling towers of the Emerald city. It could be seen as one of the greatest advertisements for highway construction of all time, or a pedestrian zone like no other. However, John Doyle's joyful stage version of the movie appears reluctant to rub salt into local wounds opened by the notorious building of the local bypass. His yellow-brick road is closer to a strip of imitation yellow-brick matting.

Meg Surrey's understated design (a wall-to-wall skyscape, untroubled by the merest hint of tornado-spun Kansas farmstead) can be partly attributed to the Watermill's acting area, which isn't big enough to swing a munchkin in. Doyle's aesthetic carefully sidesteps the movie's more troublesome visual elements. This Dorothy's Oz is remarkably similar to the rural back-of-beyond she has just left. The Wicked Witch of the West is no broomstick- thin harridan but a buxom cowgirl, clad in black from stetson to knee- high boot, with a pair of revolvers slung suggestively around the navel. The Sorceress of the South (very Tammy Wynette) in a white-jean number and a Statue-of-Liberty-style headpiece comes armed with a hicksville drawl and a wholesome smile. The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion resemble overalled farmhands in half fancy-dress, while the citizens of munchkin- land are, as any child could see, a group of kids in multi-coloured knickerbockers and wigs.

What gives this "Wiz" whiz is the way that the cast all play instruments as they are spun back and forth by a mini-revolve. Every cloud has a silver handle, enabling swift access to cupboards crammed with instruments: as well as a horn and wind section, there's an accordion for the Tin Man (clunkingly good Simon Walter), a banjo for the scarecrow (Jeremy Harrison on floppy form) and a recorder for Katherine Oliver's Dorothy (more tom- boy than Judy Garland). They lend a warm, Country-and-Western tone to Harold Arlen's and Yip Harburg's timeless songs, turning the forest capers into a vigorous hoe-down and ending with a beautiful a capella re-run of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

It's a gentle show, for the (very) young at heart: the schoolchildren at the matinee I saw were too busy pretending to choke on the dry ice to be much bothered by the light-bulb contraption intended to signify "the great Oz". The wicked witch's come-uppance, and Dorothy's return home, happen faster than you can say "my pretty". But if the journey is more memorable than the arrival, that has always been the point. It isn't as awesome as the film, but this Wizard of Oz still has plenty of brains, heart and courage. It deserves to blow its own trumpet.

Dominic Cavendish

To 16 Jan (01635 46044)

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