05 August 2008

The Wizard of Oz - Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 6th August 2008


See my synopsis of Gone With the Wind!

It’s a sure-fire hit, ok? Iconic characters, classic songs, a real-live dog, villains to hiss and goodies to cheer, the potential for great sets and costumes, stage magic in bucketloads and the potential for getting the audience on your side however bad the production – a guaranteed sell-out during the school holidays and every small child and gay man for many miles around clamouring for tickets, right? WRONG! Jude Kelly (director) should hang her head in shame at this leaden, dreary production which completely fails to hit even the easiest of marks. In fact, so bored was I that I whipped out a notebook and sat taking notes all the way through - I covered four pages and, looking back, I see that only 2 comments were in any way positive.

Lets start with the basics – firstly, the venue. The Royal Festival Hall auditorium is vast, bleak and firmly mired in the 1960s. It feels like a concrete aeroplane hanger, but without the charm. It’s a concert venue, with a tiny stage that has acres of width but about 3 feet of depth. In this empty, echoing shell, there can be no place for subtlety – any performance that must cross the orchestra pit and reach the back row has to be broad, brassy and over-miked – no problem if you’re the Royal Philharmonic, but a handicap for a jolly stage show. The lighting is gloomy and designed for atmospheric concerts where each member of the orchestra has their own music stand complete with lamp – not ideal for a show where many of the set pieces take place in wide-open spaces by daylight. Most of this production is mired in perpetual twilight – heads and feet disappear in the gloom unless you’re standing in the middle of one of the (few) spotlights, which are contrastingly so bright that it washes out any details.

Sian Brooke looks old enough to be Aunt Em’s middle-aged daughter and has no experience of musical theatre listed in her biog. Put simply, she cannot sing. Her rendition of everyone’s favourite torchsong - the heartbreaking “Somewhere over the rainbow” was croaky, out of tempo and her musical phrasing was all over the place, proving instantly that for this role, you need a singer who can act, not an actor who thinks she can sing. And that accent – less Dorothy Gale than Daisy Duke (this is being charitable – I could have said Daisy Duck). This was a performance of little or no charm, no sparkle and none of that heart-aching innocence that the role demands. In fact, you could have put her costume on a plank and felt more connection.

Adam Cooper played the Tin Man as Adam Cooper i.e. can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a bit (now, where did I hear that before??). A performance as dull as unpolished tin, occasionally enlivened by some completely gratuitous choreography. Hilton McCrae was, I suppose, adequate as the Scarecrow, being slightly less OTT than some interpretations I have seen. Gary Wilmott played the Cowardly Lion as a camp, effeminate type, all limp wrists and pouts – an extremely lazy interpretation of the part yet one which, surrounded as it was on all sides by cardboard, actually came across as one of the more entertaining characters. The dual, small roles of Professor Marvel and the Wizard can be difficult to establish – so Roy Hudd didn’t even try. In fact, in this production, Marvel and the Wizard are actually the same character, wearing the same costume. Dull, dull, dull. Julie Legrand, with the plum role of WWW, could have walked away with the entire show – the role is a complete gift yet so often, as here, the actress concerned delivers a performance as if made from Spotted Dick than from Pure Evil, merely going through the motions. Desperately, desperately disappointing. In fact, the most animated character of the entire production was Toto (here played by Bobby, a white Highland Terrier) and even he looked bored for most of the time, being seemingly content to doze on stage when his presence was required.

Costumes? Well, the designer apparently “wanted to keep the characters recognisable” – for which read “make slavish copies of the costumes from the film”. Yes, I know that they are iconic – but a little imagination really wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. WWW’s costume was possibly the laziest design of the lot, although this was given a run for its money by those of the Munchkins. A little bit more than brightly coloured shorts, T-shirts and the occasional baseball cap is needed, for pity’s sake. Having seen a production (amateur, I hasten to add) in which the costumes (in particular those of the talking trees and the deadly poppies) were described in the local paper review as “wonderfully extravagant and fit for a cruise liner’s cabaret”, these were truly woeful. The inhabitants of The Emerald City were kitted out as superannuated circus performers – c’mon, designer! A few pairs of green Kicker boots, stripy socks and green Tshirts do not fantasy citizens make.

Choreography? Virtually non-existent. There were some sparks – the three crows, the Tin Man’s dance break – but we got 12 bars of “The Jitterbug” and that was that. Over, finished, done with, kaput – as was the “snowstorm” and associated dance number that kills the Deadly Poppies and finishes Act One.

Stage magic? Oh, my days, was this in very short supply. This is a show that not only requires it, not only needs it, not only demands it, but gets down on its knees and effing begs for it in dumper-truckloads. Here, Glinda didn’t float on in her traditional pink champagne bubble – she just wandered in through the auditorium. Did the Flying Monkeys fly? Did they heck. The Wizard’s Throne Room was empty – just a disembodied voice. I’ve seen scarier Haunted Forests in my back garden. And the Twister? Well, this brings me onto the subject of “Visual Installation”.

With such a slender stage, some form of back projection obviously had to be used. No problem there – back projection can be used to add depth, provide a bit of stage magic and generally plaster over the cracks, if used properly. Unfortunately, WOZ director decided to use a firm called Huntley Muir, who describe themselves as “Urban Playground Studios” – having had a quick look at their website, it seems that they provide the type of “artwork” that a reasonably talented five or six year old turns out. Well, for this, the whole firm must have chopped up a couple of lines of Colombia’s finest each, put their shirts on back to front and crowded round the “creative play” table with boxes of magic markers, sheets of gummed paper and safety scissors, and then uploaded the lot onto PowerPoint. Their interpretation of the terrifying Twister was a rotating spiral rendered in chubby Magic Marker, during the Tin Man scene we were treated to a clunky axe with the words “chop, chop” squiggled in round it (in case we weren’t sure what an axe did) and the closing of Act One, where Emerald City looms on the horizon, sparkling and glittering like an enormous jewel seen through a sudden shower of rain, gave us what appeared to be the letterhead of Croydon Council drawn in acid green highlighter - although I am assured that it actually represented the skyline of the South Bank Centre. Oh, what wit! Oh, what ironic reverence to the post-modernist, 21st century zeitgeist! Oh, what a load of self-indulgent crap!

Add to this pacing of the kind best described as “funeral” (what worries me is that, during the first couple of weeks of the run, the performances lasted for almost exactly three hours, although they had shaved some 20 minutes off by yesterday, so the early performances must have progressed with the speed of continental drift) and the “sure-fire hit” that this show should be, fell dead to the ground with the kind of thump associated with giants falling from beanstalks. Do yourself a favour – don’t go and see this show. You’ll only find yourself agreeing that “There’s no place like home”.

What the critics thought: