Review: The Wizard Of Oz – Regent Theatre, Ipswich

People often, wrongly, believe pantomime is simple. The staging, slapstick, anarchy and apparent ease in which things go wrong give the impression that it is an easy, end of term genre that can be thrown together. In fact it is the complete opposite. To create a world in which characters have the space to be outrageously over-the-top while still providing an evening jam-packed full of fun and festivity is a real skill and takes hard work.

When that spark is missing, what should be a joyous evening out for all the family, and a great introduction into the magic of theatre for young audiences can so easily become derailed.

Sadly, Enchanted Entertainment’s The Wizard Of Oz, this year’s panto offering at the Ipswich Regent, turns out to be one of the largest turkeys of the festive season.

Things don’t get off to a promising start. As the curtain rises, the problems begin, the opening number, a country barn dance of Cotton Eye Joe is inaudible through the crackle and hiss of the sound system. Such technical issues continue throughout. The lighting often leaves the cast valiantly trying to perform in semi-darkness while, for some unfathomable reason, creating a recreation of the Aurora Borealis on the backdrop.

The sets and staging look cheap. For pantomime to work it needs an element of magic but this can be achieved on a small budget with some imagination; here it looks flat and uninspired. It’s almost Acorn Antiques meets Crossroads with unintentional laughs (the Wizard’s hot air balloon lowered in too far to show it’s only half a prop and on wires providing one of the largest unplanned laughs of the evening).

Ok so the technical aspects don’t work but surely you can’t go wrong with a panto script? Guy Pascall’s adaption of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale fails on several levels. Corny jokes are a cornerstone of panto but here Pascall resorts to a non-stop barrage of toilet jokes, with most of the humour centering around flatulence and defecation. It makes for tedious dialogue that may amuse small children for a couple of jokes but which, after 2hrs 45, become tiresome. While panto should never become overly Politically Correct, referring to a mainstream homosexual celebrity as a fairy and sections of the audience as pansies seems somewhat out of place in the 21st Century.

There are many archaic references that will have gone over the head of adults, let alone the young ones. This is a clunky and strained script that that only comes alive when the cast start improvising around it.

Baum’s story really doesn’t fit the panto genre anyway. There’s no panto dame, the wicked witch is too much of an obvious target as villain and the audience participation is shoehorned and strained within the confines of the plot.

For those expecting the well-known songs from the MGM screen musical will be disappointed. Aside from a short refrain of Follow The Yellow Brick Road, the score comprises a mix of pop songs from the last 40 years and a couple of musical theatre numbers from Hairspray and Wicked.

One feels sorry for the clearly talented cast who valiantly try to whip up some audience cheer with the limited material they are given. Tracy Beaker star Dani Harmer’s Dorothy has an innocent charm while her Oz companions, Matthew McVarish and Andrew Fleming do try and inject some depth to their thinly written characters. Britain’s Got Talent’s Gareth Oliver works overtime trying to build audience repartee but again is hampered by the material he has been provided with.

There are fine singing performances from Kate Richards and Jessica Robinson as the good and evil witches but it’s all too little to redeem the evening. Coronation Street’s Ken Morley isn’t given much stage time as a headline act to work with.

You can always judge the success of a pantomime from the interaction with the audience and here there were large sections of the audience sitting in bemused silence, resulting in more than one adlib from the cast about lack of response.

Sadly for those experiencing theatre for the first time, this production is unlikely to cement a lifelong theatregoing habit. What should have been a magical journey along the yellow brick road turns out to be broken down and in urgent need of attendance by the breakdown services.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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