If you’ve got tickets for Wellington Pantomime Group’s latest show ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ you can look forward to a genuinely entertaining night out; if you haven’t (and tickets may be quite hard to come by now) make a note to book early next year. This is a group that can do pantomime – really well!
‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was first published as a novel in 1900. L Frank Baum’s story of Dorothy’s adventures in the Land of Oz was an instant success. It has been made into a musical, a truly great film and endless stage versions due to its warm-hearted affirmation that goodness always prevails over evil, villains can always be vanquished and, after trials and tribulations, the ending will be reassuringly happy.
Wellington Pantomime Group has been presented with a gift of a script by Andrew Winfield, writes Gill Paltridge. He has managed to incorporate all the most loved elements of the Oz story – Yellow Brick Road, brainless Scarecrow, heartless Tin Man, cowardly Lion, Toto the dog, witches both good and bad, Emerald City, Wizards etc – into the format of pantomime. All the standard conventions of a rich tradition – and one that goes back even further than ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ – are employed in the narrative and the outcome is richly entertaining, very funny and an excellent vehicle for the company both on stage and behind the scenes.
From a Star Wars projected introduction (with smooth voice-over by expert Peter Dickson) leading the audience to … Langford Budville, the opening scene establishes local settings as targets of much of the humour and introduces authentic pantomime types – heroine, buffoon, Dame, villain – initially in the setting of a school. Thereafter, when a cyclone transports them all to the Land of Oz, they become familiar characters such as Winged Monkeys (called, with witty irony, John, Paul George and Ringo), Witches both Wicked and Good, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, led by earnest heroine Dorothy and her dog, Toto.
Performance in panto needs verve, energy, confidence in the ability to be and look foolish and an awareness of timing and caricature – everything other than subtlety – which the whole cast takes on board and embraces wholeheartedly.
As Dorothy, Abi Lockyer leads the way. This young performer, who has come through the ranks of WAA youth group Genesis and acquired performance skills in a number of recent productions, is superb. She has a fine voice and seems unfazed by the task of rendering ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in her own way. She even handles the understandable perplexity of the four legged version of dog Toto (a delightful creature called Muffin) when he is confronted with lights, sound and action for the first time.
Michael Cole plays the role of Bertie Birdseed – and then Scarecrow – in buffoon mode. His gormless idiocy and energetic rallying of audience involvement shows a performer at home with the requirements of the role. His singular enjoyment of his own dreadful Christmas cracker jokes should attract a fulsome response from the stalls.
Dame Betty, then the Good Witch of the South, played by Colin Marshall, has a distinct Julian Clary manner which is perfect when playing a benign, cross-dressed, slightly ironic caricature. He carries off a startling (and magnificent) array of damewear – including a hat featuring a washing-up bowl complete with pink Marigolds and a frock with ‘Fairy’ written across his chest with marked insouciance – as if he always wore them in Waitrose.
As School Headmaster Mr Leon (later Lion), Ian Jones is a delightful, wide-eyed, full-bearded, roly-poly creature who does very convincing wimpishness and Hannah Green plays Charlie Cannister and then a strong Tin Man whose physical movement is especially striking and sustained, as well as having a magnificent voice.
As the two-legged version of Toto Ashleigh Payne is clearly completely at home on stage and, as a very able mover, makes lots of big extravagant shapes, although not all of them strictly canine. Muffin provides a useful model for appealing doggy movement should he want to add a bit of authentic physical detail to the role. Ashley gets one of the best dialogue sequences in a script littered with humorous local references in which the Waitrose Essential range is gently mocked.
Mary Lewis as Aunt Em and then the Good Witch of the South is, as ever, delightful to watch. She is a very experienced performer who always seems to find appropriate physical expression for her roles. Here she’s a manic ballerina, worthily inept but earnestly determined to catch the eye of the judges. Her fervent wand-wafting at a forest of invisible cobwebs surely powers some of the theatre’s lights.
As monstrous Miss Gulch and malign Wicked Witch of the West Charlie Hughes does ‘nasty’ venomously, particularly when she’s painted green. dwelling in a dank, dark dungeon and dominating (or dominatrixing) her four lumbering, arm-swinging monkeys. To be cast as a baddy seems to be a step in a new direction for her and one which she handles confidently.
The lead players are supported by a impressively large cast from youngsters to older hands, all marshalled in big musical numbers by choreographer Christina Green. Her set pieces are expertly handled and completely effective in variety and style. Giving the cast routines within their range and then drilling them well results in relaxed, confident and visually successful routines. They all know what to do – and do it well. Christina has also acted as Vocal Coach on this production, her own majestic voice setting a fine example.
Conductor Geoff Cross has given the show a vibrant energy and makes great use of the script’s songs. Musicality is one of the strongest attributes of WAA’s various performance groups and the cast has responded to his enthusiastic urging and strict tempo. The musical numbers are the engine room of this show and one of the highlights is the a cappella version of ‘We’re Your Friends’ by a row of puppet crows.
As ever, Penny Bradnum and her costume team have produced quite stunning results. From smart school uniforms to poppies to Emerald City citizens to Munchkins and more, all are designed to create colourful, exuberant spectacle, right down to the Winkies’ gold Lurex underwear. The team even manages to dress a rubbish heap appealingly.
Staging a pantomime which demands such technical wizardry as a cyclone, magical comings and goings of witches accompanied by requisite puffs of smoke and frequent scene changes during the journey along the Yellow Brick Road asks for apparatus (such as a fly tower and remote controlled trucks) which the Wellesley lacks. The use of projections on the cyclorama is a neat solution but the crew will be putting in a night shift or two to get everything else working smoothly – and quickly. The lighting team led by Matt Redstone has created a sympathetic, changing landscape as well as some vigorous, pulsing ‘disco’ moments to accompany the dance routines.
Richard Matravers has foresaken a performance role (except as a monkey and a Winky) this year to direct the show, his first for the company. His deft touches, orchestrated movement and varied blocking on the smallish stage and attention to small details – not least to timing and mannerisms – have led to an exceptionally accomplished production.
This being the dress rehearsal, there were stumbles but the pull and reaction of an audience will smooth out the creases in this production. The audience, in turn, will be delighted and entertained – and possibly count themselves fortunate to live in or near a small town with such a big, vibrant and successful company in its midst. It’s worth remembering that weeks of work and commitment go into these shows, put in by a team with school, college and day jobs. Well done indeed, Wellington Pantomime Group!