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Theatre Review (London): The Wizard Of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Wizard Of Oz. I've watched the film hundreds of times since I was a little girl, and saw the digitally remastered version at the BFI a couple of years ago, I played the Scarecrow in my high school production and have seen at least four other amateur productions, including one of The Wiz. I've read many different written versions and listened to at least three audio versions on vinyl and cassette. I've also seen some pantomime in my time. And all of the above remain in a different league from the current production of The Wizard of Oz at Royal Festival Hall in London.

It is obviously designed to cater to children. But I have truly never lost my wonderment at musicals, fantasy, and fairytales, to the point where I am regularly ridiculed for being brought to tears by so many live shows, even at the first strings of the overture. But there was nothing, nothing at all in Jude Kelly's production that stirred the child or the adult in me even slightly. Considered in classic, theatrical, or even panto terms, this production is average at best.

It is my humble opinion that if one plans to attempt a classic there are two paths one may take: a direct adaptation to the point of mimicry, or an independently thought-out take on the original text. Anyone expecting their money's worth on either of these fronts at the Royal Festival Hall this summer is likely to feel significantly ripped off.

Whilst I'm sure the production's lead actors are very talented in their own right, I place much blame on the casting and the direction. It is the director's responsibility to have chosen one of these paths very early on and advised the casting director accordingly. Of course, there is always room to change paths, but certainly not an option to "go both ways" – as this production reveals, that will result in a show without heart, mind, or courage.

The energetic Sian Brooke (as Dorothy) may have been cast for her gutsy attempt at imitating Judy Garland's speaking voice from the MGM classic. However, the result is a bit more Forrest Gump than Dorothy Gale, and considering the venue and prospective talent, her singing voice is by no means overwhelming. Adam Cooper's dancing (as the Tin Man) is probably the highlight of the show, but it is significantly underplayed, as are many of the opportunities for any sense of meaning or comedy in his lines. Gary Wilmot as the Cowardly Lion similarly seems a little too caught up in playing the lion 'Will Smith-style' to allow space for the comedy in the script to shine through, and many lines are simply drowned out by facial expressions and attempts at physical comedy which just don't cut it.

Finally, we have also lost our scarecrow, despite the magnificent costume (actually the costumes were probably the best thing about the production – some of them, anyway). Hilton McRae just did not make the grade as far as I and my fellow patrons were concerned. He seemed lazy, unenthused, and certainly not energetic enough to play the innocently eager Scarecrow.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what was lacking in all of these performances, but as someone who works in the talent/casting sector I know for a fact that there is certainly enough talent and pizazz in London's pool alone to have resulted in much more than what we saw (not even considering the rest of the UK and indeed the world!).

One might also think that in a show as fantastical as this, with sing-along heart-lifters like "Ding Dong The Witch is Dead" and the comic and ironic "If I Only Had A…" trilogy, and with settings such as Munchkinland and the Emerald City, perhaps some spectacle might have distracted us from the meagre performances. However, any spectacle that might have been was overshadowed by a large and oddly handled projector screen placed above centre stage. A tool which could have been put to much use instead projected a stream of intentionally amateur scribbles and pictures which look as though they were drawn by a six-year-old child in the early 80s. I emphasise that era because these images are of no relation whatsoever to the young audience of today, having grown up around the special effects of the likes of Toy Story and Shrek. I have no idea what the drawings were all about, but they were nothing but an eyesore which actually served to worsen an already struggling performance.

Many spectators at the performance I attended actually did not return from intermission, and considering what a lovely summer night it was outside I honestly believe they were the wiser; a balmy night in London is certainly a rarer sight than the mediocre performance at the RFH, a venue perhaps just a bit too grand for these ruby slippers to fill.

Through August 31 at the Royal Festival Hall.

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