Sheffield Theatres has a tradition for a big festive show; this year is no exception as Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
It is one of the enduring stories of all time.
The story of a little girl whipped away on a whirlwind to the land of Oz who sets off on a journey to find her way back home.
That we still love the story over 100 years on from the L Frank Baum book and almost 80 years since the Judy Garland-starring movie makes it a sure thing for a theatre at Christmas time.
All that doesn’t alleviate the pressure on Robert Hastie, the man in charge of Sheffield Theatres and who is staging his first Christmas show.
“Julius Caesar (Hastie’s first show as Sheffield Theatres artistic director, which came earlier this year) was big, but this show is a different order of magnitude entirely,” says Hastie, as Wizard of Oz heads into its final day of full rehearsal before heading into a fortnight of technical rehearsals and previews.
He is a remarkably relaxed character, witness: on the morning we speak he is at home waiting for a new sofa to be delivered, this on the final day of rehearsal before the behemoth that is the Sheffield Crucible Christmas production heads into what will be seriously demanding technical rehearsals. It has been his trademark way of running the show since he took over at Sheffield from previous incumbent Daniel Evans.
During his tenure, Evans made the Sheffield Crucible Christmas show A Big Event. Oliver, My Fair Lady, Showboat, they were all big scale, auditorium-filling pieces of event theatre staged during the festive season in recent years.
Hastie has picked up the baton and his instinct is proving pretty good so far: the scheduled run of the show has already been extended by a week due to popular demand. “It’s not necessarily that the pressure is greater,” says Hastie. “There is just as much pressure for a piece of new writing in the studio, but I think it is the scale of expectation that feels a little different. Some people only come to this building once a year, to see the Christmas show, so this show occupies a different place for our audiences because of that.”
It certainly feels to me, having written about theatre across the region for the Yorkshire Post for over a dozen years now, that the Christmas shows at our big theatres have become more elaborate and somehow more significant.
The Bradford Alhambra pantomime draws ever bigger crowds, with the number topping 100,000 last year – a remarkable figure if you stop and really consider it. Likewise the West Yorkshire Playhouse, from Wind in the Willows to this year’s total transformation of the Quarry Theatre to an in-the-round auditorium for the first time in its history The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. The people who run our theatres seem to be pointing their focus more and more at the festive period.
Sheffield has arguably staged the most spectacular shows at Christmas over the past decade, with each new Christmas begging the question: how will they top last year?
Hastie agrees that the season does have a real significance for the industry. “In an increasingly fragmented world, the opportunities to come together and watch a story being told are becoming really treasured. From our point of view there has been a growing understanding that it is really central to our contract with our audiences to have that big Christmas show. When I first came and looked at the structure of our year it was really clear that it was an important part of the calendar that you don’t mess with. The audience expects a great show when Christmas comes around.”
So why The Wizard of Oz?
“It’s a magical tale full of joy and wonder and tradition. I have been quite guided by the original novel and when you go back to it you realise it is a perfect story, perfectly structured,” says Hastie.
“I remember as a child, it played an important part in my life. I remember being captivated by the story and the encounters Dorothy has in Oz and there is something intensely theatrical about the fact that the characters she meets in Oz all have their counterparts in Kansas – that is a really theatrical idea. It was one of the things that made me interested in acting in the first place, the idea that these actors could play different characters.”
Hastie also promises that ‘the production will meet the certain expectations that audiences have of this story – like a cyclone’.
One thing that will differ from the most famous adaptation of this story – and I genuinely pray for the day when I no longer have to write about this as a point of note – is that the character of Dorothy will be played by Gabrielle Brooks, who happens to be an actor who is black. (Note, not a ‘black actor’).
“I don’t personally like the term ‘colourblind casting’. The deliberate decision in casting Gabby is that she is a brilliant actor,” says Hastie.
Sheffield audiences might recognise Brooks from the hit show Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (now in the West End).
“Those who saw Gabby in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will know she has the perfect combination of charm, vivacity and energy to play Dorothy.”
I remind Hastie of the unfortunate truth that when the theatre hosted Tamara Harvey’s Pride and Prejudice with a mixed-race cast, as recently as 2015, some audience members grumbled about authenticity.
“I see absolutely no problem with having our Dorothy played as a black character. There’s nothing about her race that is central to the story we are trying to tell.”
And, as I said, what a story.
Published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum had slow sales to begin with, picking up and eventually selling three million copies by 1956.
Adapted as a Broadway show, the most famous adaptation came in 1939, when MGM turned it into a musical vehicle for the studio’s star Judy Garland. Although the movie was initially considered a financial flop, it went on to become one of the most successful films of all time.
Sheffield Crucible, from December 8 to January 20. Tickets 0114 2496000 or www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk