Dorothy, written and co-directed by Bryan Hodgson, tells the story of the life of L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wizard of Oz, charting his struggles to find success as a writer and the inspirations behind his beloved characters. Throughout the play, a functional set of a beautiful, large desk and some chairs serve as the house of Frank’s in-laws, his closest family, and a variety of publishing, newspaper and illustrator’s offices. The scenes depicting key moments in his life are interjected by more stylistic scenes showing the young Frank’s travels through Oz in his imagination – “the land beyond the clouds”. These scenes coincide with the more realistic moments that relate directly to each character in The Wizard of Oz, and how Baum came up with them.
This element actually feels quite under-developed. The struggles that Baum encounters in chasing his dream of being a published writer are well covered, and the defining moments in his life clearly captured, but I feel his moments of inspiration directly relating to the story of The Wizard of Oz could have been fleshed out more. I would have enjoyed exploring more of those people and situations he encountered that provided the basis for his famous characters. This slight lack of focus on the story of The Wizard of Oz also means that the scenes with the young Frank travelling through Oz don’t quite fit seamlessly with the larger picture, and are at times a little unclear. The other characters in his stories are created by using mosaics made out of large pieces of card, held by actors behind them who voice the characters. This works quite well as a device as it shows how those characters are somewhat temporary in Frank’s imagination, and when transmitted to page could represent whatever the respective reader thinks or imagines, instead of being prescribed creations – a concept Baum talks about a lot.
The script also has moments where it loses its realism. The dialogue is occasionally a little awkward, and at required instances lacks a little tension, particularly when Baum is challenged to a duel after an unfortunate typo in a wedding announcement. However, when discussing the magic of stories and the ways in which Frank comes up with his many ideas, it engages and helps to communicate well how Baum went about his work. This boils down to a script that feels like it has real potential, and presents an interesting subject with enthusiasm and some nuance, but is still in need of development and refinement.
The actors themselves also feel a little under-rehearsed. There are a few moments where lines are clearly misquoted or momentarily forgotten. Accents also are somewhat erratic, with perhaps the strongest and most consistent belonging to Rosie Knightley (“Age: nine. Favourite colour: green.”) who plays Dorothy, Baum’s niece and inspiration for the protagonist in The Wizard of Oz. Some performances also appear somewhat one-dimensional, such as Charlotte Green, Baum’s mother-in-law, whose lines all sound very similar in delivery. There are, however, some strong performances, particularly and most pertinently from Dan Gaisford, portraying Baum. While his accent slips a number of times, he brings a really nice subtlety to the role, with delicate gestures and glances showing the restlessness of his imagination, whilst remaining grounded in real world as a character we could relate to. His role is complex and considerable, so to retain our attention and sympathy is commendable. This is clearly not a show on a big budget but, with this in mind, I think Jamie Attle’s costumes are very well put together and very clearly capture a particular time, giving us the clearest indication of the era.
There are, then, some clear flaws that I feel hold this production back a little. It’s an engaging story, but its delivery shows potential as opposed to excellence. However, one key element has not been mentioned yet, and this is the warmth with which this story is told. This is in part through the script’s undoubted best portions, where Baum is talking with enthusiasm about the world of imagination, and in part through Gaisford’s gentle portrayal of a loving, doting uncle. This warmth feeds through all of the rest of the production and adds a layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience. I still don’t feel that it compensates for some weaknesses the production has, but it does mean you leave with a smile, thinking back to the excitement of being a child escaping into your imagination, as Baum did so often.
Dorothy is playing at the Waterloo East Theatre until 22 August. For more information and tickets, see the Waterloo East Theatre website. Photo: Julian Bruton.