If you’ve ever wanted to try Scarecrow Salad at a sushi restaurant, buy a t-shirt proclaiming you as “A Friend of Dorothy” or remember that “There’s No Place Like Home” on a glittering red key ring, then the place to be this summer was London’s South Bank.
Yes folks, unless you’d been just been flattened by a small wooden house, there was no escaping the fact that The Wizard of Oz was in town.
My first childhood memory of The Wizard of Oz is watching it on TV at Christmas at my grandparents’ house and I seem to remember being quite terrified by the whole experience! In anticipation of seeing it on stage, I was almost tempted to crack open the ‘limited edition’ DVD that I bought for £5 in HMV two years ago (having been seduced by the kitsch packaging that plays the chorus of “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and lights up emerald city when you press the button)…but I resisted. Anyway I digress…
Whilst I’m a big fan of the amazing regeneration of the Royal Festival Hall (completed in 2007) this was my first time in the auditorium and I was disappointed. It had a very clinical feel somewhat akin to an aircraft hangar with seats. Perhaps I’m being unfair and it wasn’t looking its best. The RFH is after all a concert hall rather than a theatre so the space was dominated by a temporary stage (with the obligatory revolve) that had been built above the existing stage. The set was a large curved steel structure with clumps of telegraph poles either side and a video screen at first floor level flanked by torn vintage American billboard posters.
Act One was quite enjoyable if slow at times. You can’t beat a stage full of cute kids singing their munchkin hearts out and Toto was a true professional. The orchestra played with gusto and the disney-esque angelic choral voices sent the obligatory shivers down the spine but there was something dark and menacing looming overhead. It soon became clear during the pivotal (and completely underwhelming) twister scene that the role played by the video projector was bordering on the comical.
Now given the limitations of the venue, I can completely understand why the designer put in a video screen as the centrepiece of the set. The great thing about a video screen is that it’s a blank canvas. You can put ANYTHING on there. Unfortunately that’s exactly what we got. A mish mash of childish and unimaginative graphics. Not even childish in a charming way, just really, seriously, unforgivably crap.
So as Dorothy and her friends reached the outskirts of the green shapes…sorry I mean Emerald City, we filed out to the bar for a quick top up. “Ooh look it’s Alan Rickman collecting his preordered drinks”. Sensible man and don’t his female companions look fetching in their ‘A Friend of Alan’ t-shirts.
Act Two kicked off in unseasonal panto style with the intrepid foursome entering through the audience but after that, I was in grave danger of nodding off. Like Dorothy, the production really seemed to lose its way. Clunky, drawn out and downright dull are the words that sprang to mind.
On the upside, the performances were all solid. Adam Cooper in particular was a delight to watch as the balletic Tin Man. Hilton McRae as the Scarecrow did some amazing things with straw and Gary Wilmot played the Cowardly Lion with a light touch and humour, although his campness seemed to come and go like Toto. A portly Roy Hudd (is it me or does he never seem to age?) played the great wizard with all the genial homeliness that you’d expect from a national treasure.
But ultimately the show failed to hit the mark. The lack of pace (the show was almost three hours long with interval), the misconceived graphics and overall lack of magic, energy and wonderment made me feel very much like Dorothy’s disappointment on discovering the great Wizard of Oz isn’t all that he appears.
Top marks for marketing and merchandising but a great shame that the production didn’t live up to the hype.