Reviews: Wicked; Imaginate festival; The Libertine (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE REVIEWS

 

Wicked

King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Until May 31, then touring

 

Grandad And Me

North Edinburgh Arts Centre

Until tomorrow,

then touring until May 25

 

The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Run ended,

touring until May 24

 

The Libertine

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until May 24

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Wicked, Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s international smash hit musical, was born on Broadway more than a decade ago.  Only now is the show, which tells “the untold story of the witches of Oz”, making its Scottish premiere at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre.

The show poses the question, are people born wicked or do they (in a knowing paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) have “wickedness thrust upon them”? What follows is a witty, humorous, sometimes satirical answer to the question, told from the perspectives of Glinda (the blonde haired “Good Witch”) and Elphaba (her green skinned university pal,  who is maliciously misrepresented as the “Wicked Witch”).

Schwartz’s book is full of lovely touches. Glinda’s toothy vanity (which is played up fabulously by the superb Emily Tierney) is hilariously parodic, from the moment she arrives on stage saying, “it’s great to see me, isn’t it?” The arrival on the university campus of the seemingly idiotic rich boy Fiyero leads to a frenzy among the female students which is reminiscent of Prince William’s time at St Andrews.

If such moments have shades of the clever works of Stephen Sondheim, Wicked is, in many other regards the epitome of everything that’s best in a stage musical. From the gorgeous costumes and sets, to the huge smoke breathing dragon which hovers above the stalls, the show is the measure of theatrical spectacle.

Emily Tierney (Glinda) and Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba)
Emily Tierney (Glinda) and Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba)

The songbook is peppered with memorable numbers, such as Popular and, perhaps most famously, Defying Gravity. Nikki Davis-Jones (Elphaba) shines in a universally talented cast, such is the deftness of her characterisation and her extraordinary vocal range. As the rapturous standing ovation on Wednesday night attests, Scotland has already taken this much loved musical to its heart.

While Wicked is packing in theatregoers young and old, the Imaginate children’s international performing arts festival in Edinburgh has been delighting young audiences, from babies up to teenagers. Grandad And Me, the first full-scale theatre work by new Scottish company The Letter J, is made for children aged five and over. It is a beautiful reflection on loss and the importance of memory.

A girl (named, simply, The Girl) imagines herself into the house of her deceased and beloved Grandad. A gorgeously detailed, nostalgic set, wonderful live music and beautifully simple projected animation combine with performer Marta Masiero’s tremendous physical movement to evoke the world that The Girl and Grandad (who was a sailor) once shared; a song set to the tune of BBC Radio Four’s shipping anthem Sailing By is typical of the show’s gentle, clever creativity.

Bereavement is also a theme in the Australian show (designed for kids aged nine and over) The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer. Created by Tim Watts and performed by the amazing St John Cowcher, this award-winning show, begins at a moment of absolute ecological catastrophe.

Through brilliantly integrated animation, puppetry and character performance, the piece weds a powerfully depicted environmental warning to a touching tale of loss (Alvin is bereft following the death of his wife) and unlikely heroism (Alvin takes on the, surely, hopeless task of a deep sea dive which just might save the desperate human race). Virtuosic, deeply sad and deliciously funny, this unique one-man show epitomises the high quality programming which has led to a recently announced CATS Whiskers award for outstanding achievement being conferred upon Imaginate at next month’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland.

Citizens Theatre director Dominic Hill is no stranger to the CATS Awards (a multiple winner in the past, he is nominated again this year). It would take a brave person to bet against him being in the frame again in 2015 for his latest production, a fine staging of Stephen Jeffreys’s The Libertine.

The play sketches the short, colourful life of the 17th-century rake, bisexual, atheist, satirist and sometime poet John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. The Earl penned some of the most boldly and hilariously pornographic poems and plays of his, or any other, era; including the none-too-subtle drama The Farce Of Sodom (partly enacted in Jeffreys’s play), which features a king called Bolloximian.

Surprisingly, despite his erotic self-destruction (Rochester died of syphilis at the age of 33), the play is not so much about sex as it is about the desperate paradox of the poet’s life. Caught between a passionate energy (inspired by a love of theatre, language and sexuality) and a sense of absolute, godless hopelessness, Rochester, as Martin Hutson’s enthralling playing of the title role makes brilliantly apparent, was as fragile (morally and physically) as he was flagrant and flamboyant.

Stripped back, Brecht-style, to the Citz’s black walls (as is, often and effectively, Hill’s wont), the production is blessed by outstanding casting throughout. Gillian Saker is powerfully anguished, and painfully self-preserving, as Rochester’s mistress, the actress Elizabeth Barry, while John Hodgkinson’s monstrous King Charles II seems to nod to the same character in that other great modern evocation of the English Restoration, Howard Barker’s Victory.

By turns stridently bawdy, uproariously humorous and deeply philosophical, this intelligent and, more importantly, emotionally absorbing production is every inch what used to be called (in the Seventies and Eighties, and with due reverence) a “Citizens Play”.

Wicked is at the Edinburgh Playhouse, November 19, 2014 to January 10, 2015 and His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, May 5-30, 2015: wickedtour.co.uk

Tour details for Grandad And Me can be found at: theletterj.org

Tour details for The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik can be found at: imaginate.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 11, 2013

© Mark Brown

 

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