By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist
Christmas and Pantomime: it’s as traditional as pudding and tinsel. The festive season without a serving of pantomime seems incomplete. There was a delightful serving of it with the courtesy of University of Bristol Pantomime Society (Pantosoc) at the Winston Theatre, where they put their signature spin on the evergreen tale of The Wizard of Oz.
“Effervescent, vibrant and riotously funny”
Their winter production of The Whimsical Wizard of Oz turned out to be a showstopper of keen imagination, improvisation and a generous serving of popular panto gags.
From the semi-lit Winston Theatre emerged our two trusty compères for the evening, Noel and Chrissy (played by Juju Wolseley and Fran McDaid). The high-end business entrepreneur Chrissy appeared to the cue of The Apprentice theme and Noel introduced Chrissy to the enchanted spectacle of Oz.
It was a well-thought theatrical device by the creators of The Whimsical Wizard of Oz to put emphasis on the intersectional passages, helping the audience to follow along the story without getting lost in the maze of the plot. There was so much taking place on the stage; breaking it down to smaller sections made it easier to follow. Alongside, it also provided the audience a heart-warming intimacy with the characters.
Juju Wolseley and Fran McDaid excelled in their roles as the narrators, acting as the conduit between the cast and the audience. Their on-stage chemistry was infectious, which culminated in a tango routine with a stage-kiss in the end to the delight of the enthralled audience.
The much-loved original story revolves around Dorothy and her little dog Toto being whisked away by a twister from her farm in Kansas to a strange land with witches, three eccentric companions and the winding yellow brick road. The signature spin of the Pantosoc adds a gleaming veneer to the original story. The double entendres, active audience participation and self -effacing funny witticisms of the cast had the audience in the seventh heaven.
Lottie Shaw shone in the bright red sparkling shoes they wore as they portrayed the role of Dorothy with aplomb. Their American accent, sensational singing and the empathy with which the role was portrayed garnered critical acclaim from the audience. Dorothy explores the strange terrain of Oz with her newfound friends Lion (Benji Kemp), Scarecrow (George Stansfield) and Tinman (Leighton Parkes). Benji Kemp stepped in at the last minute for Evie Weale who was unavailable due to ill health, but they executed the assignment with confidence.
Ziggy Cooper was majestic in his portrayal of Glenda, managing to achieve the fine equilibrium of grace and frivolity. Matthew Hill’s portrayal of Wiz ticked all the boxes with his deadpan delivery, towering stage presence and memorable one liners, most notably “like a sexy.. gift voucher”. Brona Ruiseal was the perfect foil for Hill as Ard, who in turn pleads to be taken seriously and is “more than just an arse”.
There was a delightful cornucopia of double entendre with Lewis Pearce who played Dick Whittington, having the audience in stitches with his impish charm and perfect timing. The Pantosoc expert Jonte Hance played Rumpelstiltskin with a disarming ease, while Evie Jackson doubles up as Tommy Tittlemouse and Uncle with flourish.
Joe Gibson created the beloved character of Toto with his unparalleled skills in puppetry and range of motion with finesse. Blythe White stole the show with his magnificently malevolent portrayal of the Grinch. Blythe, who was clad in green and covered in green ink, was a terrific spectacle. The growling voice and the high-octane energy he brought to the role responded to the creator's intentions of making him both menacing and memorable.
The witches (Amelie Spencer, Athena Diamond, Lily Kay and Alex Carpenter) were both beguiling and terrifying.
The narrative arc is familiar yet anarchic, and enormously satisfying. The Whimsical Wizard of Oz is the collective effort of the writers and producers Benji Kemp, Bill Dryburgh, Ellie Allen and Lewis Pearce and Stephen Murphy. The director C J Coppin marshalled the forces magnificently to create a scintillating panto spectacle.
Speaking to Epigram, C.J Coppin pointed out that:
“I couldn’t be prouder of the cast. We’ve worked so hard for this show, and the dedication everyone has shown has been incredible. We’ve had a lot of new people join panto this year, and it’s been such a joy seeing them come into every rehearsal and performance with so much enthusiasm!"
The Whimsical Wizard of Oz runs from 7th-10th December at The Winston Theatre. Buy tickets here.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Milan Perera
What did you think of Pantosoc's The Whimsical Wizard of Oz?