Wicked: An enchanting contradiction of the witches of Oz

On Thursday 4 June, The Lowry Lyric Theatre played host to the global phenomenon that is Wicked. Weeks of anticipation culminated in hundreds flocking to the renowned Manchester venue to experience an evening of enchantment and wonder.
Everyone knows the story: Dorothy and her dog Toto happen across the munchkin-inhabited land of Oz after accidentally causing the death of the land’s arch nemesis. They embark on a journey down a Yellow Brick Road, meeting a variety of characters along the way who want their wishes granted by the Wizard; Lion needs courage, Tin Man needs a heart, Scarecrow wishes for a brain and lastly Dorothy just wants to go home. The road leads them to the Emerald City where they save the day and are able to return home with the aid of a wizard and a pair of red shoes. We have grown up knowing it; it is ingrained in our minds. What Wicked does, however, is pick apart all that this tale represents in a most extravagant and alluring a manner.
Wicked exposes the untold story of the Wicked Witch of the East (deceased in the original tale), the Wicked Witch of the West (the original villain) and Glinda the Good, who is a supposed emblem of purity. In this subversive take on the original, we are transported back to the witches’ school days where Glinda is presented as the archetypal ‘Queen Bee’; the Wicked Witch of the West – or Elphaba as she is otherwise known – is an outcast, bullied at school and rejected by her father because of her abnormal green skin; and the Wicked Witch of the East is in a wheelchair.
Emily Tierney’s portrayal of Glinda is outstanding; her timing is impeccable, right down to the flicking of her bouncy blonde hair in time to the music, and her singing is consistently pitch perfect. She injects humour into the play, flouncing about the stage in a vain, pretentious fashion and thus mocking the original representation of the good witch. Beautiful but not so pure, Wicked’s image of Glinda dispels the idea that beauty equates to inherent goodness.
The Wicked Witch of the West is the other star of the show, played by Ashleigh Grey, who commands the stage throughout a variety of solo performances, her voice strong and successful in conveying the character’s emotion. Although she epitomises what society would deem ‘ugly’, with her green skin and dark clothing, Elphaba is portrayed as a talented witch with a good heart and good intentions. This disputes the original representation, but also the presumptions made about her because of her appearance.
Played by Carina Gillespie, The Wicked Witch of the East – the villain in the original story who is notoriously squashed by Dorothy’s house – is presented in Wicked as a wheelchair user. She is driven to near insanity by her inability to form proper romantic relations due to her disability and turns against the society that has refused to treat her as an equal. She consequently establishes herself as the villain and becomes yet another typical representation of evil that is lambasted by the play.
Throughout, the characters compound words together to create original creations such as ‘swankified’, ‘encouragerised’ and ‘thrillifying’. This incites a quirky, magical feel but is also reminiscent of the way in which children play with language; without restrictions and rules, with fluidity and creativity. Perhaps this could stand as a metaphor for what this parallel world of Oz represents: a space which critiques rigidity; be it in language or the social roles that characters fulfil.
The production itself exudes grandeur and glamour. The staging is magnificent, enchanting and drew you straight back to your childhood, with a mechanical dragon at the fore, suspended above the action on the stage down below and emitting roars at appropriate intervals. Other such props include the ‘bubble’ that Glinda is introduced astride. This elevates her above the munchkins and transports her about the stage as she sings the initial song in dulcet tones. Another impressive prop is the giant mechanical monkey head through which the Wizard communicates with his underlings; it is all flashing lights and a deep, booming voice.
The Emerald City introduces the most extravagant and breathtaking scenery witnessed by TNT to date. The stage is studded with glittering green lights and the costumes are an enchanting infusion of Moulin Rouge-like burlesque and colourful circus glamour with quirky twists, such as hats perched at jaunty angles, dresses with ruffles cascading to the floor, and exaggeratedly flared striped trousers, truly an eclectic feast for your eyes. This was all in the second half of the show which perked up the audience no end in comparison to the first half, which was long and drawn out and almost had the audience nodding off at points.
A variety of theatrical devices are employed; smoke floods the stage to create a sense of mystery and magic, for example. The use of a screen and silhouette to portray Elphaba’s death succeeds in distancing the action of the original Wizard of Oz narrative from that of Wicked. As it happens, this ‘death’ is later revealed as a hoax, and Elphaba is discovered to be alive. These different means of staging the story make for an engaging production where the audience is left eagerly anticipating what will next be pulled out of the proverbial hat.
Wicked’s writers have really taken the time to weave the story of the witches into the original in a subversive tale that injects both humour and meaningful messages. The lighting, scenery and most of all the costume staff deserve a huge thank you as without them Wicked could never come to life.
What the play succeeds in doing is highlighting and condemning the discrimination that is interlaced in the Wizard of Oz, and in so doing, it criticises our culture for embracing it so entirely. Wicked is a thoroughly engaging and impressive production, and the standing ovation that greeted Tierney and Gray was well and truly deserved. If there is but one show you ever take the time to watch, let it be Wicked – it could never fail to enchant and entertain.
TNT Entertainment Sophie Weiner

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