Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE WIZARD OF OZ • Royal Festival Hall • 2008

Southbank Centre aerial view (Royal Festival Hall in Centre), July 2007

Southbank Centre aerial view (Royal Festival Hall in Centre), July 2007 [Wikipedia]

Choosing The Wizard of Oz as the Southbank’s musical this summer at first seemed like a great idea. The musical hasn’t been performed in London for more than twenty years and the credentials of both the venue and the director Jude Kelly would seem to suggest that it would be an inspired piece of theatre rather than a tacky, flashy remake. Well, it’s not tacky, but sadly the production does not live up to the expectations, tarnished as it is by a bland, inadequate staging and uninventive direction – which is especially a shame considering the acting talent in it is considerable.

If such a thing is possible, the anticlimax occurs as soon as you sit down in the auditorium: on stage we see a small, dark, empty space, above which hangs a large projecting screen, with a 1930s advertisement billboard on either side of it. And this is pretty much the way everything stays for the rest of the evening. Scene changes are suggested only with the most miserly collection of props: the Emerald City is a tin green door, the Kansas farm is a little bit of fence and Munchkin land consists of, well, the Munchkins coming onto the stage.

Any other kind of theatrical magic is similarly lacking: no flying, no great bursts of colour, and the Wicked Witch makes her “out of nowhere” entrances and exists by – the horror – walking through doors in the set (there is a little bit of smoke and a bang, but the door in the set is still very obvious for all to see).

This dismal situation is supposed to be livened up by animations, continuously projected onto the cinema-sized screen. However, these are not only distracting from the main action, they are also ghastly to look at (they look like they took five minutes in Paintbrush to make) and merely reiterate what’s already happening on the stage, for example, displaying a crown during the Lion’s song about being a king. It gets quite annoying, like someone telling you what’s happening in a plot that’s really not that difficult to get.

Programme notes suggest that the set is so profoundly unmagical because Kelly and the designer Michael Vale tried to make it clear that Dorothy never really left Kansas and that instead Kansas is transformed around her by her imagination. If that’s the case, one would think that this particular Dorothy is not a very imaginative person, considering the Southbank Kansas and Oz are differentiated only by the amount of dry ice and those sorry projections.

The more likely explanation for the pared-down staging would be that the budget was not quite what the creative team had hoped for. But then the team should have asked themselves whether it makes sense to try and stage a budget version of a musical that is so strongly ingrained in everyone’s mind as a spectacular movie. Perhaps they could have moved away from the movie and designed something completely original, maybe returning to the 1902 musical. Instead, they have made the worst choice of all by exactly replicating the 1939 film in costumes and script, which only makes the discrepancy between its unfortunate set and the splendour of the movie more obvious.

All of this is especially a shame because the performances themselves are actually often outstanding. Siân Brooke is a very different Dorothy to Judy Garland, quite goofy and a bit like out of a panto, but weirdly lovable all the same. Adam Cooper, who headlined Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, is an impressively nimble Tin Man and Julie Legrand a suitably wicked Wicked Witch of the West. Despite the general ability of the cast, Gary Wilmot as the Cowardly Lion would easily steal the show – with his amazing singing voice and just the right degree of camp – were it not for a cute Maltese playing Toto, who only needs to show his muzzle to have the audience oohing and ahhing all over. It’s a shame these talented performers are continuously betrayed by the direction, which for example confines the Witch next to one of the advertising billboards for most of her stage-time and makes Dorothy walk in a circle when she’s meant to be getting sucked up into the tornado.

The Wizard of Oz is such a gem of a musical that it’s almost impossible to make a complete flop out of it. The score, the fantasy and the characters are just too good – and here they are done justice by the cast as well as the orchestra. It’s not a bad night out and for a fifteen quid at a local rep it would be an enjoyable evening. But considering the top tickets are £50 and this is the Royal Festival Hall, you’d just want a bit more bang for your buck.

Vid Simoniti © 2008

Originally published on R&V 01-08-08

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