REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz at the Georgian Theatre Royal

Gary Bridgens (Glinda the Dame) and the Munchkins.

“The Wizard of Oz? Do we have to? I mean I’ve seen the film a thousand times. Dorothy is so pathetic and I you just want to give the lion a slap. And the songs. I’ve had a long, hard day and it surely wont be improved by musical theatre. Somewhere over the rainbow way up high there’s a place where I don’t have to listen to this dreary dirge.”

Those were the kind of thoughts I was thinking before setting off to watch the panto at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond. Let’s be frank, they weren’t very pleasant thoughts and I now feel a little ashamed.

I was being selfish. A trip to the pantomime with the kids is quality family time. When they ring in 20 years and complain that their counsellor has identified a lack of time spent with their father while growing up as the root of all their their hang-ups and emotional issues, I shall say ‘but what about that trip to the theatre to watch the Wizard of Oz?’, and they will their tell their counsellor this and demand a refund.

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Anyway, let’s move on to the review. ‘But what qualifies you to review a professional production?’ I hear someone say at the back. Pipe down you. In my youth I was a regular in the Yoredale Musicals’ children’s chorus until I realised girls were even less likely to talk to me after seeing me dressed up in my sister’s black tights and prance about Redmire Village Hall as a cat. My performance as ‘balloonseller’ from the group’s production of My Fair Lady is still talked about to the day in certain am’ dram’ circles in the Dales. How did he manage to look so wooden, they say in hushed tones.

So I hope that proves that I am hugely qualified. Let’s get on with it.

It was brilliant. I haven’t enjoyed live entertainment so much since I watched Pulp at Doncaster Dome in ’98 – and then I was drunk on peach schnapps and lemonade.

Gary Bridgens who plays Glinda the dame returns for his eighth season at the Georgian and we are very lucky to have him back. He’s like panto plaster of Paris. He holds it altogether. If any cracks appear, he’s there filling them up with jokes and warmth. He’s great with the kids and knows a thing or two about squeezing out double entendres too. Interestingly, I just googled ‘double entendres’ and scores of pantomime reviews from local news websites popped up. It must be the season. It’s not hard to slip one in after all..

Watching anything at the Georgian Theatre is like watching something in your front room, except there is no dog licking its bits on the rug. And the kettle is much further away. And there’s far more people in the theatre. Okay, it’s not like your front room at all. It’s a small, historic theatre, and because it’s small, it’s just the thing for a pantomime when you have someone like Bridgens in charge of audience participation. Richmond mayor Stuart Parsons got some good-natured grief when we were there. The delight on the face of the little girl who was chosen to play the triangle was a joy to see, even for this wizened hearted hack.

Dorothy is played by former Georgian Theatre Royal Youth Theatre member Freya Mawhinney who has returned to play her first professional lead role. That is very cool and with my great knowledge of such things I predict she will have many more lead roles.

Our four-year-old found witch Alfalfa (Sarah Kearsley) to be a quite scary in the first half. Is it a first half or a first act? I just don’t know. But perhaps the four-year-old needs to man-up a bit. “It’s a scary world out there and witches are everywhere,” I told her as she struggled to get to sleep that night. Personally I thought she was a good bad witch and I appreciated that it was a panto with a witch but without a ‘which witch’ joke. You know which which witch joke I’m referring to I think.

I’m not going to spoil anything for those yet to watch the show, but there plenty of twists on the original plot which is a good thing.

Nick O’Connor (Elvis the Lion) and Ross Dean (Tin Man).

The speed punk tin man (Ross Dean), scarecrow (Edward Cole) and Elvis the Lion (Nick O’Conn0r) are very funny. Oh for a tab of what the person was taking when they thought up Elvis the Lion’s character and costume. I liked all the jokes, and the fabulous Munchkins and the real life Toto (think Pudsey from Britain’s Got Talent, only cuter but with less talent), but Elvis the Lion’s version of In The Ghetto – In The Gateaux – had me guffawing so much that my wife and kids edged away and looked like they wanted to move seats.

As the lion sang about cakes, the tin man sat at the back of the stage stuffing dry crackers in his mouth like he was doing it for a bet. You had be there I guess. It was one of several surreal moments in the panto, which were perhaps more Vic and Bob than you’d normally expect to see. But I like that. It’s pantomime adapting as comedy adapts and as audiences’ tastes change. There was still all the ‘he’s behind you’ stuff and there was still the traditional chocolate treats thrown out at Georgian Theatre pantos, but there’s was also a song about pi that I’m sure I’d heard in a festival tent somewhere and knowing jokes about the pace of change in Richmond which amused all the adults.

The story line twists and turns and I confess that I got a bit lost in the second half, act, whatever, but you don’t watch a pantomime for the plot. You have gritty ITV police dramas for that. You go to the pantomime to have some fun, laughs and a good night, and all members of our party did that, especially the grumpy dad who’d had a long day.

The Wizard of Oz runs at the Georgian Theatre Royal until January 7.

Click here to book tickets.

FOOTNOTE: It has been pointed out that Yoredale Musicals never did My Fair Lady, but they did stage Carousel – and I was a very wooden balloon seller.