Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

oz top

Dexter Whitehead as Lion, Robbie Newton as Scarecrow, Phebe Jackson as Dorothy and Paul Atkins as Tin Man

The Wizard of Oz

Sutton Arts Theatre


Sutton Arts has built quite a reputation for sparkling pantos but instead of it’s behind you, this year it’s more it’s in front of you as they are heading off down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

It is not an entirely new direction though, their reputation for an annual summer musical is even more impressive than their penchant for panto, and this is a sparkling production with strong leads and classy music from a big band in the next door tea room under musical director and top bloke Gladstone Wilson. No half measures here.

And anyone who remembers the iconic MGM film starring Judy Garland will feel right at home with this RSC version based faithfully on the 1939 Technicolor classic. It was the RSC Christmas show for 1987 and, like Matilda, another RSC Christmas offering, has gone on to delight audiences around the world ever since.

And what a delight it is at Sutton Arts, a magical alternative to panto, with Phebe Jackson shining as Dorothy, She has the innocence of Baum’s Kansas farm girl, with all the heart the tin man could ever desire, as she determinedly leads her friends off to see the wizard.

She has a lovely voice and sets the tone for the whole show with a beautiful Over the Rainbow in the opening scene, it is a song that has come to mean much more than The Wizard of Oz and these days is as much associated with the late Eva Cassidy as Garland.

Max Factor Green

Liz Plumpton modelling the latest in green make-up and giving ugly a bad name as The Wicked Witch of the West

Then there is Miss Gulch, the baddy, a miserable old crone, who dislikes Dorothy, her dog, Toto, and, you suspect anything else that moves or breathes. She is played with a marvellous air of curmudgeonly misery by Liz Plumpton, who also pops up with a hooked nose, pointed chin and green skin as The Wicked Witch of the West, taking evil and cackling to new levels in a wonderful performance that casts a spell on the whole show.

Dorothy lives on a farm in Kansas with her uncle and aunt, Henry and Em, played like Kansas depression hit farmers by Pete Dent and Alison Odell, with their farm hands Hunk, played by Sutton Arts regular Robbie Newton, Hickory, played by Paul Atkins and Zeke, played by co-director Dexter Whitehead.

As a trio they are hardly the brightest as we first meet them trying to get a wheel on a cart and they do seem to bear a remarkable resemblance to Scarecrow, in search of a brain, Tin Man in search of a heart and Lion in search of courage when a storm dumps Dorothy on the land of Oz.

The trio are quite superb with Newton, in particular, risking life and limb, and quite a few real bruises, with the scarecrow’s wibbly-wobbly legs, straw not being the most structurally sound of materials.

In many ways the production depends upon them, if they don’t work then the yellow brick road becomes a very long and winding road that goes on forever – I have had holidays that seemed to last a shorter time than a particularly tedious professional production in London.

But no danger of that here, the trio worked to perfection and were as believable as anyone ever could be when stuffed with straw, dressed in a tin can or a king of the jungle onesie – the poor lads must have been poured out of their costumes at the end.

dorothy and Glinda

Dorothy and Toto with Sarah Riches Toto, the Good Witch of the North

Another delight is Sarah Riches as Glinda, The Good Witch of the North and what a voice that lady has – if you don’t believe me listen to her CD Come Around, while we have Tom Cooper as the captain of the Guard for the Winkies – a name which caused great amusement among the children – and Nico, the leader of the winged monkeys.

Bringing a little Latin to proceedings, little being the operative wordum, we have Professor Marvel played by Paul Wescott. He is the snake oil peddler, mind reader, traveling salesman/showman who first shows the runaway Dorothy the error of her ways, gently tricking her to make her see sense and go back home.

He then pops up (spoiler alert) as a wizard. I won’t say where as that might give the plot away. But he rules quite benevolently even if it is only by gentle trickery - anything for a quiet, undisturbed life.

It is a lovely avuncular performance, even if Toto was not too keen on his sausage! The good prof was grilling it over a fire when Dorothy arrives and it seems Toto was supposed to take the doggy treat, except dogs are slow readers and Toto had presumably not yet reached that bit of the script so the sausage had to find him rather than the other way around. Nobody else noticed, but it amused me.

Toto being Pip Whitehead, the clue is in the name, who was the real star of the show, interested in everything going on around him, apart from the show that is. Watching the audience with interest, sniffing the scenery and lying down for a rest when it all got too much. He never put a paw wrong.

Whitehead, the Dexter not the dog, and wife Emily Armstrong have kept up a cracking pace giving youngsters in the audience no chance to get bored and have cleverly extended the yellow brick road up the centre aisle and out into the foyer, using the aisle regularly for entrances to give the impression that Dorothy and her friends really were on a journey.

There were a couple of technical hitches in the opening performance but this was an ambitious production technically with video screens, some clever special effects such as a melting witch, brilliant make up, superb costumes and enough pyrotechnics for a garden bonfire party, so we can forgive them a couple of glitches and a missing snow machine, which, more importantly, I suspect few, if any, in the audience noticed.


Dorothy with Toto played in laid back, as in just awake, style, by Pip Whitehead

We all worry about errors in things we are involved in, but the punters hardly ever notice unless it is so obvious it can’t be missed, scenery falling over or setting on fire for example. Those in charge might know there is an error, a mistake, something missing, but the audience rarely will.

Apparently there were more hitches I never knew about, which have now been sorted to make the show even better, but as the errant technicals never happened, we never knew they were supposed to be there, so carried on watching in blissful ignorance and they certainly did not detract from what was a fine show.

It sports a cast of 44, but it is only at the very end when the stage appears crowded, and everyone deserves a bow with the ensemble giving us not only guards and flying monkeys, jitterbugs, Winkies (stop sniggering at the back) and the Munchkins, as well as talking apple trees.

There is even some fine dance routines including a tap number with a stageful of dancers with choreography which is always interesting from Emma Green, Sophie McCoy ad Sarah Evans. It is easy, especially in amateur productions, to settle for just making sure everyone moves in roughly the same direction at the same time and turns the same way, but this shows a fair amount of time and effort has gone in, taking it up a few notches.

Costumes, designed by Armstrong, as well as hired in, looked the part while the video projections were effective, particularly the tornado that carries Dorothy to Oz and Sarah Evans and Amelia Smyth have done wonders with make up, especially the grotesque Wicked Witch of the West.

I must confess The Wizard of Oz is not among my favourite musicals. I like the film, the transition from black and white to colour fascinated me as a child – and no I was not around for the original release – but the stage show is on my avoid if you can list having see some real stinkers in the past.

So, to come out, with a smile, having actually enjoyed it, is in itself a feather in the cap of Sutton Arts, and just as important, my grandson, aged eight, loved it as well - and as he had seen How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Peter Pan Reimagined already that week, both excellent by the way - he had plenty to compare it with . . . ah, the advantages of a grandfather theatre critic . . .

It might not be panto, but don’t let that deter you, it is a lovely family musical with quirky characters, good songs, with not only Over the Rainbow but Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead and We’re off to see the Wizard as well as a good, old fashioned story for children to follow. If I enjoyed this production a lot, and I dislike the musical . . . a lot, that pretty well tells you all you need to know about this Christmas cracker. You never know, I might even be starting to like it . . . whatever - all you need to know is that it is a real Christmas treat for all the family. To 21-12-19

Roger Clarke


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