The Wizard of Oz

Feb 15 2024 | By More

★★★★☆      Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Playhouse: Tues 13 – Sat 17 Feb 2024
Review by Martin Gray

We’ve been to see The Wizard, and oh what a Wizard it was. Yes, the Yellow Brick Road leads to Edinburgh Playhouse this week for a spectacular new production of The Wizard of Oz, the beloved 1939 musical movie based on L Frank Baum’s series about the wonderful land of Oz.

You know the story. A twister blows young Dorothy Gale from drab Kansas to a realm of magical places and people… except an enchanted land means a Wicked Witch can send flying monkeys to menace Dorothy and her new friends. Can Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow reach the Emerald City, where the Wonderful Wizard of Oz can grant their greatest wishes?

Aviva Tulley in The Wizard of Oz. Pic Marc Brenner.

Full marks to the main cast and ensemble of this West End-worthy show. It has a terrific Dorothy in Aviva Tulley, vulnerable and spunky by turns as she faces the weirdness of Oz. Benjamin Yates, Marley Fenton and Nic Greenshields are uniformly splendid as, respectively, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, their movements perfectly suited to their characters.

And then there’s Rupaul’s Drag Race star The Vivienne as The Wicked Witch of the west, having a ball as she zaps everyone who annoys her – well, that’s everyone – with her spark-filled broom. It’s a bit of stunt casting but The Vivienne is superb, giving us just the right amount of menace and ham, and demonstrating a surprisingly good voice. Don’t take this the wrong way, but her exit from the show is one of the best moments.


Gary Wilmot, a regular visitor to the Edinburgh stage, is as great as ever as the Wizard and his other half, Professor Marvel. He gets one of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice songs that supplement the originals by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, Wonders of the World, and makes it rather touching.

Another, Nobody Understands Me, goes to Tulley’s Dorothy – this little girl is a tad pouty, moaning to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that they’re not her real parents. Happily, she soon gets to deliver stone-cold classic Over the Rainbow, and, all is well.

The Wizard of Oz ensemble. Pic Marc Brenner.

Emily Bull gives a great Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, zooming in and out of scenes on a Barbie-tastic scooter, her soaring tones ever ready to reassure Dorothy that all will be well. It’s a tad incongruous when they emerge from dear old Auntie Em towards the end, but the doubling up of roles is one of the delights of The Wizard of Oz.

As for the ensemble, they’re as hard working and talented as any I’ve seen, one minute Munchkins, the next Ozites, the Wicked Witch’s Winkies or fantastic flying monkeys. The choral work is brilliant throughout, while the well-drilled dancing impresses.

But there is an elephant in the room… and it’s a dog. Let’s talk Toto.

Over the years we’ve seen Dorothy’s beloved canine pal played by real dogs and plushies alike. Both work, though the plushies tend to be easier to control. Here, the little dog so hated by the Wicked Witch is a puppet. It’s a clever puppet, life-size, convincingly made, but operated by a full-sized human being. So if Dorothy is cuddling her pet, handler Abigail Matthews is there too. When Toto scuttles off ‘alone’ to unmask the Wizard, it’s a team-up.

Technically, it must take some doing, so kudos to Matthews, but I could never see the dog but not the person, it felt like Dorothy had an invisible friend. I realise that after War Horse puppets are having a theatrical moment, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

Emily Bull and Aviva Tulley with Toto handler Abigail Matthews. Pic: Marc Brenner

And then there’s the Yellow Brick Road, the iconic path to the Wizard immortalised in the 1939 film. Some floor lighting leading to the back of the stage would have done just fine, but here we have illuminated platforms ending in arrows on which Dorothy and pals stand.

They’re pushed around by ensemble members clad head to toe in yellow, and the props never actually come together as a single road. So instead of the famous arm-in-arm skipping down the path to the Emerald City, it’s a case of Follow the Yellow Brick Trolleys… it’s bizarre.

I’m all for creativity, but the puppet Toto and a Yellow Brick Road which makes dancing unnecessary don’t serve the story, they get in the way.

Then there are the filmed backdrops which propel the tale from scene to scene – great for giving hurricane vibes, but if you’re going to show us a silent close-up of the Witch in her castle, for goodness’ sake, lose the head mic.

video scenery

Talking of the video scenery, it’s surprising to say the least. Oz should initially seem enticing to Dorothy, with its golden vistas and fields of poppies, but here we get dialogue about being in a forest while we’re surrounded by a cross between an oil refinery and Las Vegas. Who knew Oz had Ozzo gas stations, coffee sold at Ozbucks and burgers at Ozdonalds?

And instead of the poppy field sending everyone to sleep, the questers find themselves in what looks to be Norman Bates’ ramshackle home, on a very unsubtle drugs trip.

La Vivienne in Wizard of Oz at the Playhouse. Pic Marc Brenner.

The production doesn’t half hammer home the idea that Dorothy is having a dream, her unconscious mind casting farmhands Hunk, Hickory and Zeke as her pals, and local busybody Miss Gulch as the Wicked Witch. But we don’t need Oz painted as a neon version of America’s badlands, the villain’s castle being Wicked Witch Industries and film telling us this version is set in the Depression – that’s not the story.

The stage is framed by lighting tubes that emphasise how much bigger the Playhouse stage is over West End spaces. It’s handy for foregrounding the colours of the Wizard’s Workshop – a wonderful set that evokes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – but glowing white tubes do not a Kansas make… at the beginning of the show it feels like Dorothy and her people live in a dressing room mirror.

magnificently sculpted

The Vivienne’s magnificently sculpted make-up makes you wonder why the Tin Man and Scarecrow’s costumes seem to end at the neck – there’s no silver face on the former, no yellow straw tones on the latter… heck, Yates looks like he’s stepped out of a production of Oklahoma.

I appreciate the massive talent and craft involved in Leicester’s Curve Theatre spectacle – the costumes, hair and make-up are eye-popping, the choreography keen, the music under MD Iestyn Griffiths excellent, even that puppet – but so many creative decisions in director Nikolai Foster’s show are distracting. My favourite moment is the encore, when the cast are all together on the flat of the stage, singing and dancing, no faff.

I’m an outlier, though – the audience at Wednesday evening’s press night performance loved it and if you like musicals, give this a go… just be careful not to fall off that portable Yellow Brick Road.

Running time: Two hours and ten minutes (including one interval)
Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Tue 13 – Sat 17 February 2024
Evenings: 7.30pm; Wed, Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Glasgow King’s Theatre, 297 Bath St, Glasgow G2 4JN
Tue 2 – Sun 7 July 2024
Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Wed, Sat, Sun: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.


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