Just because I said I enjoyed Winter at the Young Vic and looking at the snow recently, it doesn’t mean I want the winter season itself to continue! We’re halfway through March now, so you’d think the spring might make a bit of an effort. But no, we had a bit more snow today, with more due tomorrow! When I’d heard this on the weather during the week, I was worried that it might stop me from going out today. But thankfully it didn’t. What little snow fell in London failed to settle, much to my relief!
So that was great, because today I was able to tick off another big production from my theatre wishlist – Wicked. It’s had loads of awards and gets loads of great reviews, and I already knew a couple of songs from it, so I was really keen to see it. And when the opportunity to book tickets with a touch tour and audio description came up a little while back, I gladly went for it. So I went this afternoon, and in this post I’ll tell you what I thought!
The Apollo Victoria Theatre was easy to get to, just across the road from Victoria station, although you do have to walk around a large area of the road that’s cordoned off in order to cross, so I don’t know what work they’re doing there. But the theatre’s easy enough to spot anyway, with the big Wicked sign and the picture of the Wicked Witch of the East above it!
I got there at 12pm, and it turned out there was a lot of people there for the touch tour – about 40 I think, made up of visually impaired people and their companions, which was great. There were also quite a few members of staff to help out, and a couple of people from VocalEyes, one of whom is a lady that I’ve seen leading these tours before. So I had a little chat to a few of the other people there, before we went in at 12:30pm.
As there was quite a lot of us, we were split into 2 groups of about 20, and I was in the first group that went up on to the stage, which was fascinating to explore. We got to see and feel the huge mechanical wizard’s face for instance, which was very cool. It’s absolutely massive! All the stuff behind it is really interesting as well, as there are loads of little details that the audience might not see so clearly. It’s as if the Wizard put this massive head together from all sorts of bits and pieces, as the mechanism on the back has things like an old-style telephone and gas meter, various pipes and hose tubes, and all sorts of other things.
We also got to see and feel the fancy chair that Nessarose sits in, the costume worn by Glinda the Good Witch, and various other costumes worn by the ensemble cast. There’s so much beautiful and intricate detail in all of it, and some of the costumes are really heavy, making it all the more impressive that the actors dance so well in them!
We then switched groups, with our group going down into the stalls, where we got to meet more of the cast and see some of the props. So we got to talk to the main playing Dr. Dillamond, the only animal teacher in the school, because he’s a goat. He was dressed in costume, so we were able to feel the horns and ears on his head and the prosthetic latex on his face, along with his glasses, his furry coat and his hoofed hands. And he was really fun to chat to, as was the actor playing one of the monkeys that we met, and a couple of other guys that we chatted with. It was great that they took the time to have such a good chat with all of us, and wonderful that they were all in costume so we could have a really close look. They were all very friendly and clearly enjoy doing the show, and you can’t blame them!
So the touch tour was great, a very special experience indeed. Once that was done, there was still about an hour until the show started so, like a few of the others, I went out for a bit of a walk to get some fresh (and cold!) air and stretch my legs, before returning to the theatre about half an hour before the show began. I was then shown to my seat, and I was sat next to a couple of other people who had also been on the tour and were going to be using the audio description. So we said hello to each other and had a nice little chat.
The introductory notes for the audio description started 15 minutes before the show, so I made sure I was ready for those. For the first time in a theatre, I was able to use an app on my phone to hear the description through my own earphones, rather than getting a device from the theatre – although the people next to me and various others were using devices that the theatre gave them. I’ve only ever used an app for audio description once before, which was a cinema trial, so I was very interested to see how well it would work in the theatre.
The app is called Sennheiser MobileConnect, and is available on iOS and Android. It’s used to deliver the audio description to you through your headphones, when the theatre offers it for a performance (you can see Wicked’s list of access performances here). I don’t know if any other theatres use it, as this is the first time I’ve come across it, but I assume it’s used in some other places.
You first need to download it before you come to the theatre, as you won’t be able to do so via the special wi-fi network you connect to at the theatre. So download it at home on your own wi-fi, to avoid using up your data allowance unnecessarily. It’s also a really good idea to do this because you can use the demo mode to get a feel for using it.
And I found the app very easy to use. When you go into the theatre itself, you just have to connect to the MobileConnect wi-fi network, which doesn’t require any registration or password, and you’re all set. The app then connects to this network, and gives you the option for audio description, which you can click to activate it. There’s also a second screen where you can adjust the audio to suit your needs, with a blue circle that you move around the screen – left for more bass, right for more treble, up for more volume and down for less volume.
When I was initially setting up the app in the theatre, I heard a pre-recorded track with Derek Jacobi talking about things. Nothing to do with the show or the theatre I was in, it was just so I knew I was connected to the network. Then, when it was time for the audio introduction, the lady from VocalEyes cut him off and did her piece. I’d already heard the introduction on an audio CD VocalEyes had posted to me a week ago, and you can also get it via their website. But it was useful to hear it again, especially now I’d had the touch tour and could see the stage in front of me to put things into context.
The audio did cut in and out a bit during the introduction, and the audio description option seemed to turn itself off and need re-enabling a few times. So I was a bit concerned it might not work perfectly to begin with. But when the show got underway it seemed to settle down, so maybe the network was just trying to deal with all the new connections, or maybe it helped that the vast majority of other patrons had turned their phones off as requested, who knows? But I had no issues with the app during the show, so I was happy. I didn’t have to leave the screen on either – I could just press the power button to turn the screen off and the audio kept going, just like it does for things like music, audiobooks and podcasts, so that was good.
And the description during the show was very informative, giving me lots of useful detail that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. I did have my monocular as well, which I was using to look at things regularly, so I was able to use the description to know where to look and to understand what I was looking at. So it was really good, as it always has been for the shows I’ve been to so far that have audio description.
And the show itself is absolutely stunning, as if that needs saying. It’s been running for 11 years and has been swamped with awards for good reason, it really deserves all the hype it gets. It’s a great story, a wonderful alternate viewpoint on The Wizard Of Oz, a film I remember seeing a few times as a child, as we had it on VHS (and it’s scary to think that there are young people now who don’t know what VHS is!). I never read the book for that, and I gather that Wicked itself is also based on a novel, which I haven’t read either. Someone I was chatting to at the show today said they’d read it and it wasn’t anywhere near as good as this musical, so it’s not something I’m desperate to read.
There’s plenty of humour in the show, and it’s all very colourful and exciting to look at. I can also relate to Elphaba’s feelings of not fitting in very well at school with people avoiding her and thinking she was weird because she was different. This story really does make you look at the Wicked Witch of the East, and the Good Witch Glinda for that matter, in a new light, which is really interesting.
And, of course, the music and the songs are incredible, everyone performs so well. I knew a couple of the songs already, as in my music collection I’ve got the amazing Kerry Ellis (who once starred in the show) performing I’m Not That Girl and Defying Gravity, which are both really beautiful songs. So it was great to hear the stage versions of those, as well as all the other music. It’s all wonderfully composed and choreographed and sung by everyone involved.
So I’m delighted to have finally seen Wicked. It’s been great to finally see and hear what all the fuss has been about, and I can definitely highly recommend it, So if you like going to fun musicals, it’s well worth it. It’s genuinely magical!
Update 22 December 2018: I’m delighted to say that this post has directly inspired a reader to see the show themselves. Big thanks to Lynne for her wonderful feedback!