Well, it's "Ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho – and a couple of tra-la-las" for 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 a tad bizarre – rather 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 chums and saves them from the Wicked Witch.
Not here, though, alas. In parts, 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 that vast unbounded space; her production feels perversely poky. 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. There was derisive laughter when Dorothy exclaimed at the wonder of Emerald City, because it was just a puny green squiggle on a screen. It's a peculiar business because when Kelly directed the piece before at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, her production generated a sense of magic with dazzling use of CGI animatronics, puppetry, and videos projected on to glass.
In that show, though, the actors seemed trapped inside the technology. Here, we have more direct contact with the characters and there are some charming moments. When oiled, Adam Cooper's Tin Man dances a witty horn-pipe of liberation and Gary Wilmot is endearing as the Lion. The orchestra brings real punch to the droll perkiness of the score and sumptuousness to its melancholy.
Sian Brooke gives a creditable performance, though her Dorothy is too self-possessed. When she sings "Over the Rainbow", there's little of the yearning that makes you fall in love with Judy Garland during her rendition. And 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.
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