First Night: The Wizard of Oz, Royal Festival Hall, London

A well-oiled show, but the Festival Hall is no Oz
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The Independent Culture

Well, it's "Ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho – and a couple of tra-la-las" because Christmas seems to have come early to the South Bank in the shape of Jude Kelly's production of The Wizard of Oz. The timing is bizarre – as though a TV channel were to schedule It's A Wonderful Life on August Bank Holiday. But sometimes the out-of-season can be a welcome wonder: just think of that magical fall of snow on the sunny field of poppies that awakens Dorothy and her drowsy chums and saves them from the Wicked Witch.

Not here, though, alas. In some departments, this show is more a case of "Ho, ho, hum. Tut, tut, tut – and a couple of boo-hoo-hoos". The problems arise partly because of the venue. The Royal Festival Hall was never meant for theatre and Kelly fails to rise to the challenge of its unbounded space. Her production effectively denies the architecture. It feels perversely poky because she's hemmed in the action throughout, even after the uninspired transition to Oz, with the drab corrugated iron walls of the farm in Kansas. It's ironic that a piece about how you have to go far afield in order to truly learn that home is best seems to be taking place in Dorothy's back yard.

If this is supposed to be making some paradoxical point, the constriction is not worth it. The cramping design is surmounted by a horizontal screen onto which coloured Kidpix-style drawings are projected. These are so literal-minded (an axe is shown with the caption "chop chop!" for those who don't know what an axe does) that the effect is totally lacking in thrill or danger. There was derisive laughter when Dorothy exclaimed at the wonder of Emerald City because it was a puny green squiggle on the screen. It's peculiar business because when Kelly directed the piece before at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, her production generated a tingling sense of magic with dazzling use of CGI animatronics, puppetry, and psychedelic videos projected on glass.

In that earlier show, though, the actors seemed trapped inside the technology and it muffled the emotional journey. Here, happily, we have more direct contact with the characters and there are some charming and amusing moments. When oiled. Adam Cooper's Tin Man dances a witty tap horn-pipe of liberation with a trio of cow-girl trees whose apples bobble. Gary Wilmot is endearing as the Cowardly Lion and gets in a neat gag that alludes to The Lion King. Toto is adorable. The superb orchestra brings real punch to the droll perkiness of the score.

In her musical debut, Sian Brooke gives a creditable performance, though for my taste her Dorothy is too confident and self-possessed. When she sings "Over the Rainbow", there's little of the soaring yearning that makes you fall in love with Judy Garland. So you don't identify achingly enough here with the primal emotions of longing to get away and then pining to get back. The production makes no jesting reference to Wicked (the other Oz show now in London) probably because no one can bear to think of its astronomically bigger budget.