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Wizard of Oz - Spring Grove Fringe, February 2006

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Your reviewer had a splendid Saturday. Having seen England thrash Wales at Twickenham I bravely went in search of evening entertainment in its environs. The production at Richmond was too mundane to be of interest so I found myself venturing even further into the suburbs and came across, quite by chance, the famous but terribly discreet theatre group 'Spring Grove Fringe' in their last performance of the annual pantomime. Although completely sold out for all performances I was able to command the best seat in the house (Michael Winner eat your heart out) for this rare opportunity to see these masters of their art at work.

Their choice for this year's pantomime was that rarely performed, challenging and provocative work 'The Wizard of Oz' and I was especially pleased to see that it was interpreted in the only way possible in the 21st century as political satire; indeed the director had carefully directed the audience this way with the excellent programme notes, essential for the many who were clearly unfamiliar with this avant-garde piece of theatre. With its twin themes of alienation and disfunctionalism it has much to say about the current state of the UK's main political parties .

Now to the performances which were, without exception, individual and astonishing. Daisy Jones was a tour de force in the lead role managing to avoid the cloying sweetness of the well-loved performance by Judi Dench (yes she has played this part as well). Toto the dog was energetically played by Jenny Robson proving once again that breeding is everything. The triumvirate of emotionally challenged party leaders: Pam Vaughan as Scarecrow (Lib Dem), Nigel Bellwood as Tin Man (Conservative) and Ross Jones as Cowardly Lion (Labour) were audacious in stretching the audience's credulity whilst the dramatic performance of the night has to be awarded to The Rainbow which achieved the necessary frenetic pace required finally to bring down the curtain before anyone could sing that song again. The Wicked Witch (Pat Lines) was truly terrifying whilst the Good Witch (Emerlad Sheldon) managed the particularly difficult task of controlling the Munchkins without resorting to violence or substance abuse. Interesting accents abounded from the Deep South from the marvellous Jenny Hughes and Gavin Chaplin, through Newcastle to something well off the coast of Sydney from Julia Becker as a fabulous Wiz; this was a global production.

Spring Grove Fringe may have lacked that stalwart of pantomime, Sir Ian McKellan, but they benefited (?) from the unexpected presence of Gary Glitter (aka Allan Lloyd) offering his talents in between Court appearances. His seedy band of enforcers offered exactly the correct measure of political incorrectness which is so lacking in public performance these days and offered younger members of the audience a sartorial style to follow for the coming season. The same cannot be said for the THWATS who gave us the usual Grauniad PC drivel in dreary garb, albeit in a spirited manner and they did support the winning side.

Lynn Charlton had clearly benefited from her recent course of method acting having researched fully the complex character of Jason. Of particular note were the three demanding roles undertaken by the hugely talented character actress Linda Rhead who commanded the stage as a Flying Monkey, THWAT and a tree. Also branching out wonderfully were the excellent Karine Torr and exciting newcomer to this troupe, Marna Meyer, whilst Nick Sheldon's understated acting produced a very fetching tree and rather attractive Flying Monkey. Sadly missing from the production was Sandy Gavshon's legendary performance as a brick but very much in evidence was Bethany Birley's signpost.

This truly memorable piece of theatre was aided by most creative set design, special effects and exceptional musical ingenuity (a piano) not to mention bribery in the form of candy (eventually). However it is the genius of the most-acclaimed theatrical pairing of our times, Shaw and Duffin, which coaxed such extraordinary performances from all the cast.

I am convinced awards will eventually flow as did my tears.

Sandy Gavshon