Brave venture into wizardry

13th April 2001 at 01:00
THE WIZARD OF OZ. Scottish Youth Theatre. Citizens Theatre, Glasgow April 4-7.

It is a sign of director Mary McCluskey's confidence in her Scottish Youth Theatre that she chose to follow her impressive Macbeth with a colourful, sing-along The Wizard of Oz at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre last week.

L Frank Baum's story goes well with a youth theatre; Shakespeare's thanes can come back as Dorothy's three oddball companions and all the younger members (SYT has enough of these for two casts) can count themselves in as Munchkins.

The downside of such a popular show is that audiences can be very unforgiving when the stage image fails to match Hollywood's best. Within the first minute, the five-year-old next to me muttered: "The dog should be brown!"

The SYT tried some very ambitious projection on a backdrop of revolving screens, but mixing pre-recorded images with live theatre is always dangerous. Here the effect was uneven, working well with scenes of Kansas and a skull like wizard in his castle in Oz, but rather underwhelming at other times, not least with the all-important twister. In the end, I found myself wishing the technical budget had been spent instead on microphones for the young actor singers, who struggled to carry the extremities of their range.

Very much more successful was the specially-built revolving stage, on which the heroine travels on her way to Oz. Kellyanne Farquhar was an affecting Dorothy, taking a few minutes on the opening night to find theright acoustic and then sweetly floating on the exact emotional swell throughout.

She had solid support from all the principals: Fraser MacLeod showed some neat footwork and vocals as the scarecrow and Ziggy Paton's tinman and Gregor Mackay's lion were all they had to be.

It fell to Kelly-Ann Cairns to exchange the termagant Auntie Em for the gorgeously saccharine Glinda, the good fairy, and the plum part of the wicked witch of the West went to Cara Tolmie, who screeched and cackled like a bad 'un. There was some interesting voice work from Neil Hardy's Uncle Henry from the Deep South and from Robert Laurie, guard of the Emerald City, whose parody of Sean Connery's speech defect lasted as long as anybody wanted.

Inventive direction created lots of opportunities for the younger bit players and a disciplined level of performance reached right through the cast. While some were clearly enjoying the challenge of getting it right on the night, others showed genuine stage presence. Craig Steele, for example, as the mayor of Munchkin land, was stylishly dapper in word and footwork.

SYT cultivates its pedigree. At least four of the leading production staff - the co-directorchoreographer, designer, musical director and stage manager - started as youth members, had professional training and returned to the company. It is good to see this personal development going strong: in this show the wicked witch and scarecrow double as assistant directors.

Brian Hayward

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