Wicked, Leeds Grand Theatre, by Nick Ahad *****
There is a tradition of subversion, of looking at the world from an odd angle. Tom Stoppard does it brilliantly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and from that tradition comes the brilliant musical Wicked.
Taking the Stoppard idea of looking at the story of peripheral characters from another work, the creators of Wicked take the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz and tell her back story. How did the green monster of the L Frank Baum story become so, well, wicked? It answers this question with ingenuity, wit, irreverence and a real depth of social commentary. I’m not entirely sure what else you could ask of a musical.
Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman combine to tell the untold story of Elphaba. A green baby born into a world where she is shunned because of the colour of her skin, the musical charts her journey to monstrous creation of her environment.
It is a story that draws on deep archetypes while reflecting how the creation of a terrifying other is important to keep the people in check. It is a musical for the post 9/11 world. If all of this feels a little too clever, it is also packed full of stunning songs and staging that is exuberantly fun.
The show is built around a stunning central performance from Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba who befriends her nemesis Glinda, the blonde popular beauty who will one day become the Good White Witch of Oz.
It is hard to recommend this musical with brains enough.
• To July 5.
Untold Stories, West Yorkshire Playhouse, by Nick Ahad*****
Although I was pretty much forced into denouncing the Alan Bennett season at its launch at West Yorkshire Playhouse, I will admit publicly: I was wrong.
James Brining, the artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse, put me on the spot and I said, honestly, that I felt a season of work by Alan Bennett for the Leeds theatre was a little obvious.
I was wrong. The Bennett season is an obvious choice for a reason. Untold Stories and a special event with the man himself proved just how popular the writer remains. The intimacy of Bennett’s voice is better understood in his home city than anywhere else and it was lapped up at both Untold Stories and the afternoon “in conversation” with Bennett by a crowd hanging on his every word.
Bennett puts much of himself and his childhood environs into Untold Stories, two pieces of work presented under one banner. In Hymn he sits and listens as an onstage quartet plays music. As he begins commentating, the combination of the music of Bennett’s voice and the music of the quartet, blend to a mesmerising effect.
Reece Dinsdale is perfect as Bennett. On Sunday a sell-out audience watching the playwright on stage realised that Bennett himself actually appears to be someone doing a great impression of Bennett.
Dinsdale does much more than an impression and captures a slightly set-apart way of looking at the world. It is as though we are being giving access to an inner voice – a compelling, poetic inner voice.
In Cocktail Sticks Dinsdale is a different Bennett, moving through his memories of Mam and Dad as they come to life. It is a brilliantly-directed piece of work by Mark Rosenblatt and John Arthur as Dad is particularly good.
• To June 21.
The Book, York Theatre Royal, by Catherine Scott ****
The Book is the latest project by Yorkshire-based theatre company Flying Cloud founded by Leandra Ashton four years ago. Now joined by Jennifer Kidd and Marta Isabella Rizi, the trio write and perform in their latest project currently touring Yorkshire theatres. The Book is a thought-provoking piece of work which unites Flying Cloud’s signature style of new writing, movement and live music, and explores explores identity, friendship and freedom.
The play centres around one book and the effect it has on three different characters separated by thousands of years. The Book shows how a beautiful idea captured in a book can lead to dangerous interpretations beyond the author’s imaginings. It also looks at relationships and just what is possible if we work across religious boundaries to achieve it.
It is an intense 80 minutes of theatre, which in York Theatre Royal’s Studio could have become claustrophobic, but instead it achieved its aim of asking questions of us and our beliefs.