Heading into Chichester Festival Theatre to see their Youth Theatre perform The Wizard of Oz, I’m a little apprehensive. I’ve heard a lot about their 800-strong group, but never seen them in action before. I’m unsure how a group of young actors will handle a 1,000 seat theatre, but it doesn’t take long to prove my worries wrong.
First things first, Ella O’Keefe shines as Dorothy. Her entry is delayed for a few scenes, but from the second she rushes on stage we know that the show is in safe hands. She nails the accent in speech and song – and her first solo performing ‘Over the Rainbow’ while keeping the Kansas twang intact is one of my moments of the show.
O’Keefe also forms a great duo with her beloved Toto, puppeteered excellently by Ellie Dickens. Toto feels like a living, breathing animal throughout the show, moving frenetically, panting and yapping. The interaction is seamless too – whether Toto is jumping into Dorothy’s arms or chasing the Cowardly Lion’s tail, Dickens seems at one with the other actor’s movements and adds a great level of dynamism.
The great physicality of the actors reverberates through the show. The three male leads (Aflie Scott as Scarecrow, Joe Clines as Tinman, Richard Chapman as Cowardly Lion) all come to life through their movement – Scarecrow’s straw-induced stumbling, Tinman’s rusted ramble and Lion’s pusillanimous prancing all help the boys erupt into their Oz characters and lead to some playful choreography in their introductory songs (‘If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/The Nerve’). The work of Director Lucy Betts and Movement Director Lauren Grant is the most evident with these larger than life characters. It’s a shame that the boy’s Kansas counterparts (Hunk, Hickory and Zeke) seem flat in comparison – they all blend together in the first act with little to differentiate them.
In fact, a lot of the Kansas scenes leave me a little wanting, O’Keefe’s solo excluded. Despite a great nod to Grant Wood’s American Gothic in the opening moments, the grey costumes and black and white projection at the back of the stage are wearisome. The opening scenes feel lifeless until the tornado comes along – although this is admittedly excellent and features some fun prop work to show the house taking off.
In fairness, when we arrive in Oz, all of these issues are dealt with. The stage brims with colour and action (courtesy of Richard Dawson Laight’s costume design), and a number of set piece songs make great use of the ensemble and again showcase impressive choreography from the lead actors (particularly ‘Munchkinland’, ‘Poppies’ and ‘Jitterbug’).
The witches also provide a touch of magic to the evening, and Florence Clarke does a stellar job in particular, stealing each scene she is in as The Wicked Witch of the West.
The denouement of returning to Kansas feels a little rushed, and too much time is taken looking for Dorothy after the tornado. As actors run around the audience we are unfortunately looking at an empty stage for too long.
Ultimately though, this is a triumph. Seeing young actors dominate a professional theatre with aplomb verges on the unbelievable and is a real testament to Chichester Festival Youth Theatre and all involved. Despite a few understandable accent slips, all the main actors hold their own and more, and each scene in Oz is overflowing with energy. Though more could be done with the start and end of the play, all the iconic moments deliver, and really, when you’re off to see the Wizard, who wants to be in Kansas anymore?
The Wizard of Oz played Chichester Festival Theatre until 29 December. For more information, visit the Chichester Festival Theatre website.