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REVIEW: Wicked, Mayflower
The wicked witch is dead … or is she – either wicked or dead? Helena Gomm tries to find out…!
A political leader who is all self-inflated pomp but no substance, who lacks any kind of moral compass, who disseminates fake news and bases his policies on anything that will increase his ratings.
A society where popularity is everything and black can be portrayed as white, and white (or, in this case, green) can be condemned as black; where a woman who speaks only the truth can be branded a liar by a man whose lies have corrupted the institutions of an entire nation.
A country where minority communities are stripped of their rights and their voices, their young locked up in cages … one would be forgiven for thinking that this show is an allegory for the United States under the Trump administration. But no, we are in the Land of Oz, as imagined in the 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, on which this 2003 musical is based.
The battle of good versus evil has resonance for any age and any situation, which is probably why Wicked has lasted so long – it holds the record for the 8th longest-running Broadway show of all time. Its take on this universal theme is a familiar but worthwhile one: the question of good or evil is not a simple matter of black or white; there is ambiguity on both sides. Which is which? Or, more to the point, which witch is which?
Discriminated against for her green skin, despised by her father and little more than a servant to her sister, it is little wonder that dorky Elphaba (later dubbed The Wicked Witch of the West in a campaign of misinformation orchestrated by the Wizard and his henchwoman) is a bit ornery when she arrives at Shiz University.
Glamorous Galinda (later to become Glinda the Good), however, bursts onto the scene with the confidence bestowed by a lifetime of being the girl everyone wants to know, and with a pile of white suitcases that would put Elle Woods of Legally Blonde to shame. She is, however, a vacuous airhead, disinclined to do anything that will shake the status quo or dent her popularity. The unlikely friendship that eventually develops between these two forms the basis of the story.
And the night belongs to them both. Amy Ross as Elphaba and Helen Woolf as Glinda give a belting performance in a show where all the best roles are the female ones. The women out-sing and out-perform the men at every turn.
And the whole point of the poor old Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that he is not at all ‘wonderful’ in real life. He has to hide behind a mechanical mask with flashing eyes, which boosts his voice to make him appear impressive. It’s a shame he couldn’t have been given more menace. Many weak governments take the ‘bread and circuses’ route to popularity, but it takes real evil to seek to unite a population by demonising minority communities (in this case, talking animals) and persuading people that they are the enemy within. This Wizard is no more scary than the bloke in the current Oz-themed Halifax mortgage commercial.
So where are all the talking animals who are being subjugated by the Wizard’s army of thugs and championed by Elphaba, the only person courageous enough to take a stand against injustice? Apart from a handful of lively but largely non-speaking monkeys, the only animals we see are a caged lion cub and the visually impressive but vocally timid Doctor Dillamond, a goat who teaches history at Shiz University. We do catch a brief tantalising glimpse of the Cowardly Lion’s tail, but that’s it. So the animals are just as much disenfranchised by the plot as they are by the Wizard’s regime.
But the audience are there for the spectacle, not the politics, and what a spectacle it is. With amazing sets, stunning costumes, powerful singing and some great numbers, this musical casts its own spell. There is humour, too, not least in spotting the references to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to which this is neither a prequel nor a sequel, running as it does both before, during and after the action of the much-loved film.
Who is really wicked and who is really good? Which witch is which? You’ll have to see the show to find out. Wickedcontinues at the newly refurbished Mayflower Theatre until October 27th.