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Review: Wicked at Liverpool Empire ****

On its first visit to Liverpool in 2014, the equivalent of one in seven of the city’s population flocked to the Empire to see Wicked.

Audiences are out in force again this time, with more than 60,000 tickets sold before the show even opened, and a party atmosphere in the Lime Street theatre’s massive auditorium.

It’s not difficult to understand the excitement, with the blockbuster musical offering a meaty story - with some themes to discuss with young audience members on the way home, impressive visual spectacle, massive musical numbers and a spot of defying gravity.

And it’s unlikely anyone is going to go away disappointed from this latest touring production, which offers polished, high production values and some strong performances both in the leading roles and also in the ensemble.

With regular Elphaba Amy Ross unwell, another Amy – actress Amy Webb – filled the green witch’s sensible shoes for press night, her confident performance underlining the depth of talent in the touring cast.

Elphaba’s story arc takes her from lonely outsider to cherished friend, to campaigner for the weak and voiceless, to hunted and hated outsider again, and Webb drove the emotional rollercoaster with energy and conviction – and with a bravura performance of the anthemic Defying Gravity which brings the first half to a suitably stirring conclusion.

Helen Woolf as Glinda the Good Witch. Photos by Matt Crockett

Of course, there are two witches in the Wicked story, the future Wicked Witch of the West and her supposed nemesis, Glinda the Good Witch, and Helen Woolf proves as bubbly as the cloud of bubbles which surround the wand-wielding Glinda on her descent from the sky.

Underneath the girlish perkiness and goldfish brain however, Glinda has both an iron resolve and a fatal weakness – the desire to be accepted and liked, and Woolf captures this uneasy conflict perfectly.

While there are serious themes at play, from kindness and not judging a book by its cover to the persecution of minorities and ethnic cleansing, they are woven well in to the action so they never feel like they grate.

And there’s also plenty of humour among the tragedy, along with knowing nods to the original Wizard of Oz, with the action in the second half running in parallel to Dorothy’s sudden arrival, seen from the other side of the curtain as it were.

Director Joe Mantello keeps the action pacing along, while the production is beautifully and effectively lit by Kenneth Posner.

A thought-provoking theatrical treat for all the family.

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