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Review: The Wizard of Oz at St Helens Theatre Royal ****

The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 80th birthday this year, so it’s no surprise there are so many theatres laying down a yellow brick road.

Merseyside has three Easter shows which promise to transport audiences to the merry old land of Oz.

First out of the starting blocks is St Helens Theatre Royal, where producer Jane Joseph is herself marking a special anniversary this season – 25 years of pantos.

Joseph and director/producer (and daughter) Chantelle Nolan certainly know what they’re doing when it comes to pantomime. Oh yes, they do.

And this Wizard marries a fairly faithful telling of the original troubling Technicolor tale, complete with its big numbers like Follow the Yellow Brick Road and Over the Rainbow, with typical panto tropes.

The first half of the show is particularly strong as Dorothy (Mia Molloy) is transported from monochrome Kansas to bright and shiny Oz, where she meets her three (rather familiar) travelling companions – as well as both good and evil witches.

Real life mother and daughter Linda Lusardi and Lucy Kane face off as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good, and Lusardi clearly revels in her role as the baddie, taunting the audience and spitting out insults on stage with entertaining relish.

There’s also a splendid trio of farmworkers-turned-Oz travellers on their way to meet Jay Lusted’s Wizard.

Linda Lusardi as the Wicked Witch of the West. Top: In the land of Oz. Photos David Munn

Harry Moore makes a wistful Tinman, and the richly-voiced Steve Arnott a charming Cowardly Lion, while the audience engagement and broad panto prat-falling role is very ably filled by Reece Sibbald who works incredibly hard as the daft-as-a-straw brush Scarecrow.

I’m assuming it's for comedy effect that while everyone else speaks their lines in American accents he maintains a way-ay Geordie twang. And if so it works because he’s very, very funny, both in the scripted scenes and in some unscripted moments on the first night which had the audience doubled over with laughter.

There’s some near-the-knuckle content for older audience members but still plenty of colourful story and powerful musical numbers to keep the kids engrossed, although the second half, which detours from the Oz story to add in extra content, could take a good 10-minute trim without losing any of the show’s momentum.

But with lions – if not tigers and bears – oh my, this is another panto hit for the St Helens team.

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