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Wicked at The Apollo Victoria is a relatively new kid on the block in the family of West End musicals. Now in its seventh year, it has survived any early growing pains, but has yet to achieve the longevity of some of its more long-running siblings. But it already has the feel of an established part of the scene and shows every sign of being around for some time to come.
Subtitled ‘The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’, it does just that. In a narrative running parallel to the off-stage story of Dorothy and her journey down the yellow brick road, we see how the wicked witch became so dastardly, how the tin man lost his heart, the creation of the scarecrow, the cowardliness of the lion (and so on) until the witches themselves encounter the Wizard of Oz. It’s witty, with much irony for those who know the original story of Dorothy, to which there are many knowing doffs of the witches’ pointed hats. It is also overflowing with stories of good and evil, the need to be true to one’s friends, but overpoweringly the importance of being good and true to oneself.
There are some tremendous performances, packing a punch in this huge venue. In the leads Rachel Tucker (Elphaba) and Gina Beck (Glinda) are particularly impressive, carrying the weighty roles of the Wicked and Good witches who also bear the burden of the central question of the evening, the meaning and manifestation of good and evil. And in a very strong supporting cast, Julie Legrand stands out, playing Madame Morrible as one imagines Maggie Smith might take on Margaret Thatcher: imposing and risible in equal measure.
There can’t be much room for subtlety in the cavernous 2,300-seater Apollo Victoria and everything is on a suitably grand scale. Even the story, with its many strands of relationships lost, found, unrequited and unknown plasters everything on three layers thick, with klaxons and bells and whistles sounded at every turn to alert the audience to another Damascene moment. But perhaps this has to be the style in order to capture the attention of an otherwise inattentive audience.
For here’s the question: which came first, the inattentive audience, or the show that fails to grab and maintain the audience’s attention? I was astonished by the number of white and blue screens that lit up the auditorium as audience members checked and sent emails and texts; the number of full blown conversations (rather than observational asides) that went on between members of the audience, sometimes requiring people to lean forward to commune with someone three or four seats along the row; and the number of people who simply got up and strolled in and out of their seats at the most inappropriate times.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Ironically I had exactly the same experience at this musical’s “sister” show, The Wizard of Oz, at The Palladium. There I had put it down to the fact that the good Lord Webber’s TV audition process had brought a television audience into the theatre, with television-watching habits. And, in all honesty, the theatre world must be pleased that at least there is an audience at all rather than these shows playing to empty houses, and embrace it.
Unfortunately, however, it does seem that the production then becomes a product of its audience and its expectations. Whilst everything about the production is Spectacular (with a capital ‘S’), it achieves this at the expense of its heart and soul. Technically the production cannot be faulted. The designs, the costumes, the technical wizardry (in every sense) are all stunning. The lighting and sound in particular are miraculous – ironically, it is in these departments that there is some real subtlety on display and, even from the very top of the dress circle, every word and syllable is audible when the audience allows it to be.
But like the Tin Man himself, the show can leave you in search of its heart. Even the iconic number ‘For Good’, so eagerly anticipated and welcomed by a cheering and clapping audience, has had its heart produced out of it.
However, that number, other moments, and the entire show had the audience in raptures and on its feet, like a deftly timed key change in X-Factor. It is a production which has got the formula absolutely right, hits all of the right buttons of its target audience and therefore, unsurprisingly, is an enormous success. It thoroughly deserves to be rewarded for finding its niche with such panache and will undoubtedly be running for many more years to come.