“A visual impairment doesn’t hinder your experience; it enhances it”

As someone who is obsessed – no… enthusiastic – about musical theatre, what better show could there be to experience on a warm June evening than Wicked?

For those who don’t know, Wicked exists as a sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz, going beyond the yellow-brick road to a time before Dorothy. It tells the story of the witches of Oz – Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the so-called Wicked Witch of the West – of how they came to be and if they really suit the titles they possess. In a way, it’s Elphaba’s side of the story – a girl who was singled out and ostracised for her differences (I can’t help but relate to her a little bit… though instead of a visual impairment, Elphaba had green skin and magical powers. Magical powers would be a nice side-effect to a VI…). An unlikely friendship forms between Elphaba and Glinda during their teenage years… and I should probably stop before I reveal a massive spoiler.

Anyway — the Lowry’s Lyric Poster for the musical 'Wicked'Theatre was the last stop in Wicked’s 2015 UK tour, and thanks to some saved birthday money, I had a ticket. I don’t normally go to the theatre. Sometimes it’s due to the expensive tickets, other times it’s due to the fact that tickets sell out at the Lyric in an instant, but 100% of the time, the main issue for me is this: visual impairments do not always fair well at the theatre.

Wicked is a pretty visual show. The costumes, the choreography, the sets… they’re all elaborate and visual, and for someone with a VI like me, it can be hard to experience the entirety of the show. And yet, I don’t feel like that was the case when I left the theatre.

When I arrive, ticket at the ready, the staff are more than helpful. They make sure I know where everything is from the loos to the concession stand to my seat (front row! How’s that for luck?). The theatre itself has disabled access for those that need it, with easy-access seats and lifts right outside the theatre entrance. It’s an accessible theatre, which earns brownie points in my book. Mind you, my main obstacle isn’t getting into the theatre. It’s experiencing the show itself, and when the curtain goes up at 7:30pm, I’m rather apprehensive as to what to expect.

That first four-part harmony of “good news” in No One Mourns the Wicked throws me right in, headfirst, into the world of Oz! Right there and then, I realise that there is so much more to seeing a live theatre performance than just… well, seeing it. It’s the atmosphere! It’s the music and the emotion, the talent of the actors and the tonality of the band, and it’s glorious (being spitting distance away from Ashleigh Grey, who plays Elphaba, doesn’t hurt much, either!) The vocals are phenomenal. I’ve never heard a better rendition of the Act 1 closing number, “Defying Gravity”, which received a well-deserved standing ovation. Emily Tierny’s Glinda, too, is one serious soprano (while I am a lowly mezzo-soprano who always fails to reach her glorious high notes…*sigh*).

“A visual impairment doesn’t hinder your experience; it enhances it” – Beth Arnold tells us about Wicked at The Lowry 3

Ashleigh Grey and Emily Tierny are indeed brilliant as Elphaba and Glinda. They bring a sort of British-ness to the two protagonists which may not feel quite right at first considering most would be familiar with the original Broadway Cast or Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth, but it grows on you. Is it weird that the British charm of the West end Cast makes some of the characters a bit more likeable? Or is that just because of the “charming”, Tom Hiddleston-esque stereotype that a particular British accent provides? It’s probably the latter…

Either way, I don’t think my visual impairment hindered my experience of Wicked in any way. If anything, I think it enhanced it. I got to experience the music in its rich, magical entirety. The visuals are important, yes, but I feel like the music of a show has a completely different ability to touch a person. The heartbreak in “I’m Not That Girl”, the hope in “The Wizard and I”, the desperation in “No Good Deed”… it can affect you so much more than seeing the choreography or the costumes can ever do.

That’s probably why I love musical theatre so much. I was apprehensive before going to see Wicked because I didn’t realise this, beforehand. I’ve only every watched “bootlegged” recordings of shows online where I can pause and zoom in if I need to. A live show is different – it’s the atmosphere, and I would definitely recommend going to the theatre. I would go again in a heartbeat.”

To see what’s on at the Lowry, go to http://www.thelowry.com/events/theatre-shows/ or phone 0843 208 6000.

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Beth Arnold is a service user and volunteer with Henshaws and has been helping us with our admin services and working as part of the Customer Hub in Manchester. Beth enjoys creative writing, musical theatre and Doctor Who. In the future, Beth hopes to earn a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, and plans to pursue a career in publishing.