By Nigel Smith
“IT’S Behind You!” cried all my friends, as the curtain came down on my final Panto of Christmas in January. Oh no it’s not, because the ever growing phenomenon that is The Easter Panto sprang into life last night with The Wizard of Oz at St Helens Theatre Royal.
And all in all it sets a pretty high benchmark for the season, with bags of colour, plenty of music, great audience engagement and a whole lot of laughter.
Regular scriptwriter Si Foster (best known as St Helens’ resident Dame) steers a steady course between the Yellow Brick Road and the set pieces of Pantoland. The story is all there, punctuated by some of the traditional games, from the gradual picking off of a line of cast members by an evil creature to the ritual of a group of small children volunteered to go onstage and sing for chocolate.
This show might not have a Dame, but it certainly has a Wicked Witch, and Linda Lusardi hurls herself into the part with delicious relish. Mia Molloy is a sprightly Dorothy who skips though the piece with some fancy footwork to go with her fairytale charm.
There is a great trio of companions for Dorothy’s Emerald City adventure. Steve Arnott and Harry Moore are wonderfully cast as the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodman, but nobody could disagree that the show-stealer is Reece Sibbald, whose Scarecrow is a comedy force to be reckoned with. He’s a specialist in the genre and knows exactly what he’s doing at every moment, milking the script for every drop of humour.
To be fair, in the scene-stealing stakes, 5 year old Buddy (a Jack Russell, Chihuahua, and Yorkshire Terrier cross) has everyone’s affection whenever he’s onstage as Dorothy’s faithful dog Toto. No stranger to the role, he seemed to know his cues better than some of the human cast and is clearly a consummate professional.
The inclusion of those extra-textual panto scenes makes this a fairly long show, and it might pack more of a punch with a spot of trimming, but the energy level never sags and the children in the house were totally on board throughout. There is some first rate singing, with many of the familiar songs from the film version included along with the modern hits, and the choreography is well executed too.
Director Chantelle Nolan must have had her hands full in the rehearsal room with this lively cast. Even on opening night there is already a sense of a bunch of friends having an absolute ball, and they have the comic timing down to a fine art. That said, some of the funniest moments came when one or more of them totally lost the plot or descended into uncontrollable giggles. It’s a show filled with fun, and there are some real high points, including an absolutely priceless scene where the Witch shrinks the Scarecrow to half his size.
It’s the merry old land of Oz alright, and it runs at the Theatre Royal until 22nd April.