Review – “Wizard of Oz” – Royal Festival Hall, London

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“Surrender Dorothy,” indeed. For this show, I think “Beware Dorothy” might be a more appropriate tag.

As someone who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz over and over again (once a year, on TV), the possibility of NOT seeing this show was small. Basically, every time I saw the ruby slippers on a poster at the Southbank, I knew I had to go. Appropriately, I was promised tickets as a birthday present – what better to bring a sparkle to my eye? – then studiously avoided reading all reviews of the show until I went last night.

This may or may not have been a good thing.

From the beginning, I had problems with elements of this show. I liked the Kansas version of the set, with a video screen overhead showing images of fields and stormy skies and the floor fenced off by corrugated metal that nicely implied a not very rich farmstead. But from the minute she came on stage, Dorothy (Sian Brooke) rubbed me the wrong way. First, she seemed whiny rather than plucky (home from school on a farm? I promise you you’d be set to doing chores right away, not bothering the farmhands with your gossip), and her accent was atrocious. How can English actors get 40 kinds of English accents right and fail so miserably at almost every American accent? “Southern” and “New Yawk” do not substitute for Midwestern, and Dorothy sounded like she was about to run down the road to Tara and make a fancy dress out of the drapes. I was mortified. Not only do people from Kansas not talk like that (I should know), but neither did Judy Garland (whose performance was so clearly influencing this one) in this or any other movie.

That said, I was patient at the beginning despite my frustrations. Toto was adorable (though ever so focused on the contents of Dorothy’s pockets – ah, dogs!), the various characters were still establishing themselves (though mostly coming off a little cardboardy), Kansas isn’t exactly supposed to be “magical,” so there was still plenty of time for things to improve.

Sadly, the magic never happened at all. Dorothy’s tornado scene should have blown the metal away in preparation for entering a new world. Instead, she lay on her bed as it circled around the stage floor, while the video screen showed childish drawings of a spring around a funnel, with occasional projections over the spring of a boat, a cow, a bicycle, and a witch (if these were the “visual installation,” Huntley Muir has a lot to answer for). These drawings became a source of amusement for me, and I made sketches of them to show just how bad they were (see reproductions, fairly lifelike, made in MS Paint, the first the projection used while on the Yellow Brick Road, the other the one that appeared when they were in the forest finding the Tin Man) since I wasn’t particularly captured by the “action” on stage.YellowBrickRoadsign

So … Oz, land of wonders. Or not. The world was still full of corrugated metal, with a tiny opening in the back of the stage (6 by 15 feet?) showing blue skies and representing arrival in Munchkinland, now full of small children who managed to sing a bit but struggled with their dialogue. At this point, the failures in the lighting design (by Mike Gunning) began to really irritate me. A group of moving people in what is supposed to be an outdoor space should not be walking in and out of shadows on stage. Is this a problem with the Royal Festival Hall, say a lack of places to plug in lights? At the very least, much heavier use should have been made of follow spots; I would have kept one constantly trained on the red slippers during the entire time they were on the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet. Instead, they sat in the shadows, somewhat forlorn, a rather sad fate for such well publicized footwear.

TinManProjectionThroughout the entire time in Oz, the metal background never went away. The scene in the cornfield (full of crows who looked like Goth versions of Robert Michener in Night of the Hunter) took place surrounded by metal, the poppy field (in which escapees from St. Trinians held giant red flowers over their heads) was similarly ghetto gated, even the Emerald City had a shantytown look to it. By the time we made it to the Wild West hangout of the Wicked Witch of the West (featuring cowboy hatted and duster wearing, all-black, “Yo hee oh” chanting Winkies – what had gone wrong with this world?), I’d long given up on ever escaping from this dim little set. Was there no fly system to carry things away? Was there no backstage? Did the revolve only provide a tatty little yellow marley circle for the performers to half-heartedly stroll on?

What I found myself longing for (other than for the people who sat in the audience talking like they were at home watching TV to DIE) was the raw energy and enthusiasm of Pantos. (This show isn’t done as one per my English born companion, but I had thought from reading the West End Whingers’ article on why they weren’t going to see the “Wizard of Oz” that it was). The Cowardly Lion (Gary Wilmot) was getting there; he hammed it up, gave his lines 110%, and acted like he needed to act loud enough for the people at the back of this barn (most of us) to feel his performance. While this wouldn’t have been appropriate for a really serious performance, it seemed like it fit with this show fairly well. And the Tin Man (Adam Cooper) was not a bad dancer and actually tossed in some gratuitous (and much appreciated) tap moments. In fact, for me, the closest this got to magic was when the gang of four were bitten by a “jitterbug” and all wound up dancing around on stage. This show could have used a lot more of this kind of action – as well as a lot more enthusiasm in general.

It seemed ultimately it was all brought down by Sian Brooke, who just seemed to be going through the paces (the joke in our row being she was off to Oz in search of acting lessons and returning to Kansas hoping to find her accent). Is she upset at being trapped in this turkey and just biding her time until her contract is over? I haven’t seen such a listless performance since the closing week 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, in whch the half-full houses seemed to be pulling the smiles off of the chorus members’ faces en masse. Maybe she just found the work of taking care of a dog and acting at the same time too much to handle, but in a town with the depth of theater talent that London has, there is simply no excuse for her lackluster performance. She let down every other person on stage, except for Toto, who, obviously, isn’t a person and appeared to be having a great time, which meant at least one living creature in this horrid barn was. Certainly the 10 year old napping on my shoulder wasn’t, nor her 8 year old sister.

In short: not as bad as Fram (see the Framometer at the WestEnd Whinger’s site – and note we actually stayed through the interval though I would left if this hadn’t been my birthday present – my friend said the increasingly hysterical levels of cheese were encouraging him to stay to see just how bad it could get) but still a turkey and TOO DAMNED LONG. Don’t take your kids, don’t go yourself, play your get out of jail free card before you buy and take a pass on this mess.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008. For an even more sizzling review, read Russell’s Theatre Reviews, where the origin of the horrible overhead projections is explained in great detail. The good news is that West Side Story, which I’ll be seeing next week, is supposed to be great, as is Pygmalion, which I’m seeing tonight, and even Into the Hoods, which ends at the end of this month, should be fun.)

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8 Responses to “Review – “Wizard of Oz” – Royal Festival Hall, London”

  1. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    Told you.

  2. Julia "fineeyes" Says:

    Oh dear, I’m going on the 15th. The poster is so shiny, it’s a pity the production isn’t.

    I hope you enjoy Pygmalion- I saw it on Saturday and it was quite possibly the finest thing I’ve seen all year.

  3. Interval Drinks Says:

    Am glad I decided to give this a miss! West Side Story is much better, though it feels its age. And Pygmalion is a gem too.

  4. Meaghan Says:

    Yikes – our site was going to do a review of this but now it doesn’t seem likely we should subject any of our editors. I love the ms Paint art, nice addition (and even more off putting with regards to the show!)

  5. Mark I Says:

    Oh, what a shame! I was looking forward to your review, seeing as the whingers weren’t going, and you were so keen beforehand!

    Hey ho. Hope you had a great birthday notwithstanding. And don’t worry, the ‘real thing’ is bound to be on telly again at xmas. (We used to go round to my grandparents to watch it, because our tv was black and white – which made the arrival in Oz a bit less dramatic than it should have been!)

    See ya soon,

    Mark

  6. russbowes Says:

    Nice and succinct review of a truly dreadful production – Jude Kelly (director) should hang her head in shame.

    For those that are interested (and a bit of self-promotion here!) I’ve also reviewed this production on my blogsite

    http://www.russells-theatre-reviews.blogspot.com/

  7. Preview of August: a month in theater « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] Festival Hall. This is a birthday present and I’m looking forward to it! UPDATE: This was miserable. 6 (Wednesday): Pygmalion at the Old Vic. Hey, better late than never, and you can’t get much […]

  8. Julia "fineeyes" Says:

    How on EARTH did Sian Brooke get cast?! Appalling performance, just horrible.

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