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Amateurs tackle RSC's Wizard of Oz production on big Newcastle stage

The Wizard of Oz will get the West End treatment in Newcastle this week - complete with dog

West End Musical Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz
West End Musical Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz

It is 75 years since Judy Garland’s sweet-voiced Dorothy first tripped along the Yellow Brick Road in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz – and young Hannah Elliott is about to follow in her footsteps.

The talented 14-year-old stars in the West End Musical Theatre Company production which opens tonight at Northern Stage.

It is a massive undertaking for the ambitious amateur theatre company but it has experience as well as youth to rely on.

Whereas Hannah will be on stage for all but two of the performances – Stephanie Noutch takes over on Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon – the directorial team will be taking care of business backstage.

Katie Howes, the director, has played Dorothy twice herself and also directed The Wizard of Oz before in the North East.

Assistant director Eileen Glenton, meanwhile, directed this same production when it was staged at the Theatre Royal in the mid-1990s which was Katie’s second time in the leading role.

Eileen is Katie’s mum. She is a doyenne of the North East musical theatre scene and has only ever been upstaged once – at a Theatre Royal photo-shoot in 1992 to publicise Newcastle Operatic Society’s Hello Dolly.

As Eileen posed on the grand staircase, I got talking to her sister, Margaret Parnell, who told me she was the creator of some 600 of the models that were made on Blue Peter out of ‘sticky back plastic’, cereal packets and the rest.

Unshowy Margaret was, therefore, a legend of children’s TV. Somewhat reluctantly she agreed to pose with Eileen in her feathered and bejewelled finery.

Eileen, gracious as ever, tells me that Margaret got a mention recently when Blue Peter presenter Biddy Baxter was on Desert Island Discs.

Hannah Elliott as Dorothy in West End Musical Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz
Hannah Elliott as Dorothy in West End Musical Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz
 

As for Eileen, who lives in Durham, she is back in the thick of the action. Returning to the stage last year to play Mrs Lovett in Durham Musical Theatre Company’s Sweeney Todd, she received an award from Noda (National Operatic and Dramatic Association) for the best performance in the North East.

“It was a great honour,” she says. “I hadn’t been on stage for 12 years.”

Now she is back in the world of Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man.

“I directed Katie in this show at the Theatre Royal 20 years ago and that’s why she’s doing this version at Northern Stage,” she says.

“This is the same RSC version again. There are two versions. One is really for amateurs and it’s very funny but also a lot easier. This is very much the film with Munchkins and poppy fields and technically much more difficult.

“I was dragged in to be Katie’s assistant. She said, ‘We’re doing the RSC version, Mum. Would you come in and help with the Munchkins?’ So I’ve been responsible for 52 children!

“We auditioned 106 of them and whittled it down. The stipulation I had was that they didn’t necessarily have to be experienced or at dance school. They were all chosen on their merits.

“This has given us an opportunity to give some children who’ve never been on stage the chance to perform. I hope this will either encourage them to join a theatre company or give them some wonderful memories for when they’re older.”

Eileen regrets that few of those keen to take part were boys. “If you’re looking at dance schools, you won’t find many Billy Elliots,” she says. “But musical theatre should be encouraging for men because there are so many good parts for them.”

She recalls speaking to the grandfather of a seven-year-old boy who insisted on auditioning. “He said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to continue because he’s getting interested in football’. It’s a shame because he’s adorable... even if he doesn’t really know what he’s doing!”

All will be putting heart and soul into the Northern Stage production this week to match the work that has already gone into set, props and costumes. Eileen has been helping out and even found a dog to play Toto, Dorothy’s companion.

Sookie, the lhasa apsol, belongs to Lesley Potts, from South Shields, who served as Eileen’s dresser when she was playing Mrs Lovet in Durham. This will be Sookie’s stage debut.

So you see, if you really want an easy life, avoid the world of amateur theatre. Here’s a company not only picking the more complex of the two available Wizard of Oz versions but wilfully ignoring the WC Fields advice about never performing with children or animals.

I bet the show will go down a storm. It runs at Northern Stage from Tuesday to Saturday. Tickets from the Northern Stage box office on 0191 230 5151 or www.northernstage.co.uk

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