REVIEW: Wicked in the West End remains as bewitching as ever

Elphaba (Nikki Bentley) defies gravity in Wicked
Elphaba (Nikki Bentley) defies gravity in Wicked

Peter Ormerod reviews Wicked at the Apollo Victoria theatre, London

After 13 years on the London stage, it could be forgiven for feeling a bit stale. It's been seen in the West End by 10 million people and is already the ninth longest-running musical in the city's history. It has secured a place in the affections of many; the public has voted it Best West End Show three times at the annual WhatsOnStage Awards. Everyone involved with it could just go through the motions, just get through it night after night; it could grind its groove into rut and still coin it in.

Alistair Brammar as Fiyero and Nikki Bentley as Elphaba

Alistair Brammar as Fiyero and Nikki Bentley as Elphaba

So perhaps the most striking aspect of seeing Wicked this was not its songs or the costumes or the staging, but its spirit. It popped and fizzed and sparkled, time and repetition evidently having dulled none of its verve. The production was attacked with a first-night energy; there were even occasional signs of nerves, which, far from appearing unprofessional, accentuated the show's deep sense of humanity. This is not a cast of automata, and is much the better for it.

Wicked does not rely on its reputation, then. Nor does it rely on its spectacle. There are striking set-pieces aplenty, and the action is rarely dips below dazzling, but there is a sense that it this cast would do just as good a job with a minimal budget at a provincial amateur theatre. From its themes to its script to its performances, Wicked is suffused with a charm and likeability that mean this big and bold show never lacks a heart.

The story sees L Frank Baum's magical world of Oz - Wizard and all - from the perspective of its witches. It tells how Elphaba, the woman known to generations as the Wicked Witch of the West, spent much of her life as a shy, friendly and compassionate figure whose being born with green skin led her to be ostracised and ridiculed. She is contrasted with the ebullient and glossy Glinda, who radiates confidence and is surrounded by a coterie of acolytes. The pair's unlikely friendship proves genuinely touching and lends the show a power no amount of lighting or scenery could conjure. And it is more than what would now be called an 'origin story', with the plot beginning before The Wizard of Oz, running in parallel to it and ending after it.

This gives great scope for the exploration of big ideas in human terms. Wicked deals with the nature of evil, the power of manipulation by politicians, the dangers of scapegoating, the effect of relationships on individuals and plenty more, only rarely seeming overburdened or worthy. Yes, those all-pervasive notions of empowerment and self-fulfilment are present, but are handled deftly and with a degree of nuance; Wicked has a welcome sprinkling of pepper to save it from undue sweetness.

But it is the performances that really make it all work. Lisa-Anne Wood as Glinda arguably has the harder job of the two witches, her character being less complex but still needing depth. It would be easy to portray her in a caricatured manner, and while Wood does allow her to become something of a cartoon at times, there is clearly an intelligence at work alongside a vividly emotional core. Nikki Bentley meanwhile shows great range as Elphaba, her path to her fate feeling perfectly believable; the endearing qualities she displays early in the show never leave her entirely. It all makes the idea of singing in celebration of her death feel rather unpleasant. The two characters dominate proceedings but are supported ably at all turns by the large cast. And while performers of this calibre should be expected to enunciate clearly, they all got their words across impressively, battling at times with tricksy wordplay and a busy score.

Indeed, perhaps the music is the most subjective aspect of Wicked and the hardest to judge. To these ears at least, there are not many memorable melodies; its most famous song, Defying Gravity, is by some way its best. But there are intricate arrangements and witty lines aplenty, and the tunes never drag. Wood and Bentley sing with warmth, tenderness and gusto; there can be a hint of screech at times, but perhaps this is more a matter of amplification than technique. There is scope for greater subtlety in staging and lighting: one of the show's most affecting scenes - in which the awkward young Elphaba struggles in silence to dance - is also one of its simplest, and a greater appreciation generally for the gentle and delicate would not go amiss. It may be time for the production team to take a fresh look at the show and bring out more of its beauty in a visual sense.

The theatre itself merits a mention too. The Apollo Victoria opened as a cinema in the 1930s and feels of a time with the cinematic version of The Wizard of Oz, its art deco stylings offering a fitting frame for the action. It is fair to say Wicked lacks some of the darkness, creepiness and general weirdness of that film, and is less troubling if more palatable as a result.

Wicked, then, is far better than it needs to be at this point in its life; it could get away with being nowhere near this good, such is the goodwill in which it is held. It is also not quite the show the uninitiated might expect: less shiny and glitzy and brash, more winsome and winning and delightful. And on this evidence, Wicked will continue to defy gravity for many years to come.

* Wicked is now booking until May 2020. Visit www.wickedthemusical.co.uk​ to book.