It seems only right that, with its curiously Gothic prequel Wicked still defying gravity at the Apollo Victoria, The Wizard of Oz should take a first London bow after twenty years. This is the stage version of the 1939 MGM movie John Kane adapted for the RSC at the Barbican in 1987, which Southbank director Jude Kelly also plundered in her final season in charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse six years ago.
Spectacularly designed by Mark Thompson, the RSC version (Imelda Staunton was a chunky Dorothy Gale) was camp, colourful and charmless. The last two epithets apply to Kelly’s robust production which nonetheless trudges along at nearly three hours playing time, with an energy-sapping, tinny sound system and over-emphatic playing style.
The twenty-piece band under Jonathan Gill is well balanced with the metallic voices and in its own disposition of strings and wind. Designer Michael Vale uses a split stage of projections on the upper level – a somewhat cartoon vortex for the Kansas twister, a battery of incomprehensible video screen images, a scratchy outline of the Emerald City – and solid scenery below.
Sian Brooke is a likeable, over-age Dorothy but the role is a vacuum without Judy Garland, and her little dog Toto – played winningly by a plumpish white Highland terrier – the real star of the show. Dorothy’s three transformed farm hand friends are costumed exactly as their counterparts in the film: Hilton McRae is a delightful, bendy-legged Scarecrow with a Stan Laurel blink; Adam Cooper a stiff-limbed, signalling Tin Man who can nonetheless tap dance like Gene Kelly; and Gary Wilmot a loveable Cowardly Lion nothing like Bert Lahr, zanier and “aw-shucksy.”
But their triple quest for a brain, heart and courage in the Land of Oz is uninvolving and repetitive. I miss the sinister dwarfishness of the Munchkins in the movie; a stage full of cute kids turns the show into a pantomime. And there is neither any climactic arrival in Oz, nor any real terror in the green-faced cackling of Julie Legrand as the Wicked Witch. The elements are all assembled but nothing gels into theatrical drive or punch.
There are compensatory pleasures in the three dive-bombing black crows, and the apple tree trio that could have been more Andrews Sisters, surely. But by the time the March of the Winkies plods by for the third time and Dorothy exclaims, “Now I’ll never get home,” there was an almost audible susurration in the stalls of “Neither will we!”