Sunday, 7 February 2016

Bob On... Theatre: Wicked, the Musical

I have been attending the theatre for more years than I care to remember, anything up to a dozen times a year (and sometimes more). Of all the shows I have seen, the one I love above all is ‘Wicked’.

Based on Gregory Maguire’s book of the same name, ‘Wicked’ takes the story of the Wizard of Oz and turns it on it’s head as it tells the tale from the angle of the two witches, Glinda the Good and Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West. Where I found the book disappointing, Winnie Holzman’s storybook of the show is far tighter and the narrative structure makes much more sense.

The first half of the show is mostly lighter and contains most of the comedy moments and more amusing numbers (and also contains the two most famous songs ‘Popular’ and ‘Defying Gravity’), dealing as it does with how the two young girls first meet and, from a place of pure loathing they come to form a firm friendship that culminates in their trip to the Emerald City and the chance to achieve their heart’s desires.

But they find there is a heavy price to pay...

The second half is far darker, as the girls’ lives move apart and take a very different direction, before coming back together for the final showdown. The Green Girl definitely has the best of the songs this time around (including one of my favourite songs ‘No Good Deed’), but the two leads share the beautiful and tender ‘For Good’.

I believe ‘Wicked’ balances dark and light perfectly. It gives a lot of spectacle and big scenes for the younger audience, and a classic romance (if you consider ‘green girl meets boy, boy chooses blonde girl but falls for green girl after all’ a classic romance!). But it also deals with adult issues; prejudice, suppression of free speech and the misuse of the media for propaganda are all contained therein.

At it’s heart, ‘Wicked’ is an old-fashioned Broadway musical. And old-fashioned Broadway musicals need big numbers. But it contains gentle songs as well, such as the aforementioned ‘For Good’. The true test of a score is whether the songs are memorable; and in the case of Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Wicked’ score, two of the numbers (‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘Popular’) have gone on to be known in their own right, outside of the musical arena.

I find myself lost in the show; I have always been so caught up in the performance that it took me until the fourth visit to remember to check out the scene change in the lead up to ‘No Good Deed’! ‘Wicked’ just grabs hold of me and keeps me hooked in a way no other show has managed (with the exception of the sublime and beautiful ‘Once’).

But as a huge fan of the show, my views could well be considered biased. So perhaps the best way to explain the appeal of ‘Wicked’ is through different eyes. Like the gentleman sitting behind me on my last visit, who got the humour in the show immediately and was laughing out loud. At the interval he turned to his companion and said “Isn’t it marvellous?”, followed by “That was wonderful” (an accidental pun that occurs all too often) at the end. Or the four girls (in their mid-20s I would guess) sitting in front of me on another occasion, all grinning sheepishly at one another as they realised they had all been weeping openly as Glinda and Elphaba said their goodbyes in ‘For Good’.

But the memory that sums up the appeal of the show comes from a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 who was sat beside me the first time. We were approaching the final scenes and she went to take a sip from her water bottle. But became so captivated she froze in position, totally caught up in what was happening on the stage, water bottle held just an inch from her mouth.

Any show that can have that effect is, my friends, by any use of the word, "Wicked"

Click here for the London show website

Buy the cast recording soundtrack

Bob On... London: Union Chapel, Upper Street

The Union Chapel is one of those treasures that exists in London, tucked away from the main entertainment hubs, but doing a great and diverse job.

As the name suggests,  it was a church, but was in danger of being demolished. Saved by local action, the Chapel was renovated and has become the home of a church, cafe, bar, performance venue, homeless charity and so much more.

But what you will see when you walk through the door is a stunningly beautiful building. And the acoustics are wonderful; it is no surprise so many musical acts choose to perform here.

The range of productions that run here are diverse: Bands, singers, film evenings, comedy gigs, recitals and yes, given it is still a working church, services.

There are free guided tours, daylight concerts and speakers, to crossword challenges! So truly something for everyone. And every penny you spend there helps the Union Chapel support those less well off.

Union Chapel
Compton Terrace
N1 2UN

To learn more: Union Chapel's website

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Bob On... Books: Quick Reads

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the 10th Anniversary of Quick Reads.

Quick Reads is a wonderful organisation, set up to encourage reading by adults with reading difficulties.

I was surprised to learn as many as one in six adults in the UK have difficulties with reading. To them, the prospect of reading a full-blown novel is a daunting one. But Quick Reads supplies the answer; shorter and simpler tales, making them easier to tackle.

The stories are written by bestselling authors and supported by their publishers. There is a mix of standalone tales and compilations, such as this year's anniversary compilation which features tales by Fanny Blake, Elizabeth Buchan, Rowan Coleman, Jenny Colgan, Philippa Gregory, Matt Haig, Veronica Henry, Andy McNab, Richard Madeley, John O'Farrell... and even a couple of recipes from The Hairy Bikers!

And the great trick is these tales are put out for just £1 - at that price, people who don't read/struggle to read can dip their toes into the water. Spend £1 and don't like it? Not a huge deal. Spend perhaps  £7 or £8 on a full-blown novel and don't like it? Less likely to take another chance.

Over 4.5 million books have been distributed, helping the cause of adult literacy immensely.

To learn more, click here for the Quick Reads site

Quick Reads is a great program, and even avid readers can get a lot from it.