Whilst The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most famous stories in history and has been adapted countless times, L. Frank Baum’s other works are nowhere near as well-known, perhaps by virtue of rarely being adapted. That’s not because his other works are weak, but, rather, difficult to adapt.
His little-known origin story for Santa Claus, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, has recently been adapted for the stage as a musical called Claus. I love a world premiere, and it’s especially exciting seeing a brand-new show that I know nothing about.
The day before Claus’ press night, I caught Curve’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz, which is based on the film of the same name, itself based on Baum’s most prolific novel. Whilst the production gave the story a makeover, I knew exactly what was coming; I’ve seen the film countless times. With Claus, however, I knew not what to expect; I knew he’d end up as an old man that travels the world and blesses children with toys, but I did not know how he’d get there – and I was excited to find out.
However, I was a little disappointed by the story. I know it’s based on a children’s novel, and the musical is very much a family show, but The Wizard of Oz is narratively complex and philosophically astute enough for adults to enjoy.
The flimsy narrative of Claus is Baum’s fault, but I do question the creative’s choice in adapting something so trite. It was probably inventive when it was written, but after scores of origin stories, the genre is exhausted, and this one falls flat. The story begins quite interesting but struggles to find its footing. Spoilers ahead.
A pre-show consists of magical beings interacting with the audience, on different levels of the theatre. It aids in transporting us to a magical forest, where each species (e.g. fairies) is led by a King or Queen, and somebody (who?) leaves a human child. The child is found and adopted by Necile (the wonderful, super talented Georgie Buckland) and loved by all in the magical kingdom – except the villainous Awgwa (played by the deliciously evil Jazz Evans, who chews up the scenery).
Awgwa and his motley crew are responsible for the misdeeds of humans; they whisper in their ears and convince them to hurt others. Awgwa attempts to thwart Claus’ efforts to spread kindness in the world by turning Claus, himself, evil – but he ultimately (obviously) fails. Whilst the defeat of the villain is inevitable, it could have been executed more excitingly. Instead, it is pretty sudden, with no feeling of jeopardy.
It’s all quite predictable and uninteresting. It feels under-written – even though the musical is twelve-years-in-the-making.
The second half of the second act, however, takes a more interesting, unexpected turn. Claus has become an old man whilst his fantastical family remain immortal and, thus, ageless. The Kings and Queens reveal that they can make Claus immortal with the one unclaimed magical cloak – the red one, of course! But it comes with a price: for a mortal to be made immortal, an immortal must became mortal.
Claus’s adoptive mother, Necile, sacrifices herself for her son, as any mother would. However, she does not die immediately. Instead, she grows old over time – and it is revealed that the kindly, old woman narrating the story is an aged Necile. It’s a beautiful, emotional twist.
Alwynne Taylor is wonderful as the narrator. She oozes expression and passion – physically, verbally and emotionally. I recently caught her in the world premiere of The Time Traveller’s Wife (where she, funnily enough, played an older version of the title character). Onscreen, Taylor is recognised for EastEnders, South of the Border, and Midsomer Murders.
Claus is played by the adorable Harry Winchester, who beams positivity; he’s exactly what you’d expect a young Santa Claus to be like.
The production’s design, meanwhile, deserves both praise and criticism. The stage design is beautiful; Stewart J Charlesworth has succeeded in creating a fantastical forest where immortals reside, aided by Aaron J Dootson’s lively lighting. Whilst the actors make great use of the space, the stage can sometimes feel overcrowded – especially because the stage in the Quays Theatre is quite small (unlike the Lowry’s immense Lyric Theatre).
The production’s use of puppetry is hit-and-miss. I generally enjoyed the use of stencil figures placed behind sheets of fabric, which resulted in large, beautiful shadows; it felt both child-like and whimsical. However, other aspects were not as successful. In particular, I was confused by the decision to have various actors grip on to Shiegra’s tail and move it around. Whilst I appreciate the intention to give the tail a life of its own, the execution was poor, and I found the movements to be quite distracting.
As I said in my review of The Wizard of Oz, bringing animals to life is not easy, but there are many ways in which you can succeed. Jessica Lim was on fine form as the kindly lion, and she should have been allowed to control her own tail or just have it dangle behind her. Sometimes, less is more.
Claus cannot possibly compete with the staples of the season, such as Elf, White Christmas, and the never-ending adaptations of A Christmas Carol (even Dolly Parton has one!). People often want something more familiar in the festive period, yes, but Claus also fails to match the magic of the aforementioned, thus, audiences might be disappointed in trying something new.
However, whilst Simon Warne’s script lacks jeopardy, I can appreciate Claus as a warm, child-friendly story with a positive message. The production is presented, and the story is delivered, with a sweet innocence that takes us away from these difficult times. It’s saccharine and sentimental, but so is Christmas, and sometimes all you want is some light-hearted escapism to make you forget the cost-of-living-crisis, our revolving door of Prime Ministers, and whatever rubbish has been spewed by Musk/Trump/Ye today. Bah humbug!
Claus – The Musical plays at The Lowry (Quays Theatre) until January 8 2023.