Wizardry of Oz

Friday 1 April 2011

One much favoured Whingers’ pastime is spotting trends (well we could hardly set them could we?). Could this be the latest?

Reports arrive from previews of Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre that Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith are being rather unceremoniously upstaged by the titular animatronic pig, prone to hogging every scene in which it appears. Theatre insiders now whisper that, taking the lead from Betty’s success, the producers of The Wizard of Oz are toying (quite literally) with replacing Toto with a robot dog.

Four West Highland terriers, Bobby, Razzamatazz, Dazzle and Topper currently share the role and have been stealing the show nightly at the London Palladium, which must be terribly disconcerting for the rest of the cast. But with handlers and canine chaperones required it comes at quite a price.

If the show settles into the theatre, as expected, for several years, a surrogate Barbara Woodhouse will have to be employed to train up more doggies when the original Totos’ contracts expire. Dogs can be notoriously unpredictable, especially as they come to grips with their new-found star status.

One backstage wag claimed, “You can tell each dog already senses it’s the star. They don’t get on with each other at all. They’re fighting with each other and definitely not what I’d call four-legged friends. I haven’t seen behaviour like this since I worked here on a show starring X. I think they’re all bitches!”

Cunning theatrical accountants, worried they will be saddled with pooches looking for bigger pay cheques, better dressing kennels and possibly their own number “(How Much is) That Doggie in the Tornado?” have suggested that creating a radio-controlled Toto could be a money-saving answer in the (expected) long run.

For safety reasons, Toto is already represented by a stuffed version in the show where Dorothy, carrying the dog, is flown away by the monkeys. Replacing Toto our spies tell us, “just takes things one step further”.

Of course there are risks. A mechanical mutt might, like Betty the pig (who was crafted in Melbourne by The Creature Technology Company), be just as attention-grabbing as a real one, but APR (Animatronically Programmed Realities) another Australian company (based in Poowong), are already said to be in “discussions”. Wizardry of Oz indeed!

It’s not an entirely new concept. TCTC also created the touring Walking With Dinosaurs show. The stage musical Doctor Dolittle got round the animal problem by getting The Jim Henson Company to create over 100 animatronic beasts. More recently the only reason to endure Greenland at the National Theatre was the spectacularly convincing appearance of an animated polar bear.

War Horse eschews real nags for brilliant puppetry, but animals have often frequented the West End stage. Who can forget the pack of dogs in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, those chickens in Jerusalem, or the only moment the Whingers can recall from the National’s The Rose Tattoo; an on-stage goat?

Initial ideas to follow The Umbrellas of Cherbourg‘s gender-blind casting and the National’s colour-blind casting with animal-blind casting, replacing Toto with a cat, were dismissed as creating a new set of problems (the Palladium is a listed building and can’t have cat-flaps fitted) and well, just a bit barking.

We think the dogs should bone up on their rights at their branch of Equity before it becomes a right doggie mess.

With the film industry able to create performances with CGI motion capture think TRON: Legacy think Avatar, think The Lord of the Rings, will technology make stage actors an extravagant luxury too?

What next? The Tin Man would be an obvious place to start. But could a robot ever achieve the nuances of Edward Baker-Duly‘s enjoyable performance we reported here?

The Whingers express concern. Will the West End turn into Epcot?

And what will become of people like these two?

3 Responses to “Wizardry of Oz”

  1. James Says:

    Or they could just replace Crawford with Bob Carolgees!

  2. ruth_dt Says:

    Ugh, is that the date already?

  3. Suzie Says:

    Am I reading an April’s Fool joke?


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