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Culture, Theatre

The Vivienne as The Wicked Witch of the West

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What can audiences expect when they come see this version of The Wizard of Oz?

It's the most iconic story ever told, isn't it? And it's definitely very true to the original material, especially the movie that we all know and love with the amazing Judy Garland. But it's been kind of brought forward by I'd say maybe 20 or 30 years. It feels very 50s. It's got this Vegas-y feel to it.

How would you describe The Wicked Witch of the West as she's portrayed in the show?

She's this glamorous, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford-esque kind of character. She's fabulous, a strong woman and very misunderstood, but then Dorothy's a very strong character too. The show is everything you know and expect plus a whole lot more. When I saw it at The Palladium my jaw hit the floor. It's beautiful, with the costumes, the numbers, the original songs from the film and the new score from Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s produced by Michael Harrison, and we're also being directed by Nikolai Foster, so we're in the most amazing hands. It's a treat for everyone.

Is this your first stage acting role?

I've acted on TV before but yes, this is my first theatre role and I keep pinching myself every day. It's probably been the best experience of my life so far. Just the rehearsal process alone was wonderful - being surrounded by the most amazing, talented and creative people, and for them to welcome me with open arms and actually enjoy what I'm doing with the role. I feel very blessed and I keep feeling like I'm the one that's ended up in Oz and that I'm going to wake up in Kansas once more and realise it was all a dream.

What makes The Wicked Witch such an iconic character?

Speaking as a gay man, I was always obsessed with the villain. I wanted to be Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Ursula in The Little Mermaid. I was never bothered about the heroine, I wanted to be the evil one. And now here I am, literally painting myself green. It's fabulous. I'm sure it's a lot of fun playing the hero in a story but I always wanted to be the baddie, and now here I am playing one of the biggest baddies of them all.

How do you channel your inner witch?

I've been watching some of my favourite witches throughout the years, like Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus, and I kind of borrow from them. I've seen so many interviews where actors say that we all steal and borrow from each other and then put our own spin on things. So along with Bette I'm borrowing from Angelica Houston in The Witches, Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest. I've made a concoction of all of them, along with the original Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz film, of course. I actually have a tattoo of her on my leg.

Do you get to wear any fabulous costumes?

Oh, the costumes are out of this world. Rachael Canning's done the costumes and I keep saying it's how it would be if The Wicked Witch of the West went to The Met Gala.

What challenges does the show present to you?

I have a huge song that opens the second act. There's the song, a big dance break and then there's the reprise of the song, which is the kind of big moment that you expect in a musical like this - that big song from the villain. So, the challenge is doing that for eight shows a week, plus the witch is very scream-y. She has those iconic lines like 'I'm melting' and 'Fly, my pretties' and they're screamed into the abyss. It's about having to find the places in my voice where it's not going to kill me every night as well as looking after my health, taking vitamins like they're going out of date and just looking after my body.

Can you recall when you first encountered The Wizard of Oz?

Looking back, I've always had this kind of subconscious affinity with The Wizard of Oz. I loved it as a kid and watched it on VHS probably 100 times until it wore out. And then my mum found our family video camera one day when I was older and I'd reenacted the whole of The Wizard of Oz in my bedroom, every character. I was mortified watching it with her. I played The Tin Man in a school production; I auditioned for Dorothy but I got The Tin Man instead. The song Somewhere Over the Rainbow holds such a dear place in my community's heart - and not just my community, in everyone's heart. It's a song about finding yourself, it's about human growth, the human spirit and finding your tribe. The Wizard of Oz has so many themes running through it, and everyone has their own persona; thing that they take away from it.

Is that why you think it's such an enduring story?

It's timeless. It's going to go on long after I'm in the ground. I used to work in a nightclub called Garland's, which is named after Judy Garland and it was themed around The Wizard of Oz. Its influence is everywhere. It's going to live on forever.

What first drew you to drag as a career?

I fell into it! I don't think anyone grows up and says 'I want to be a drag queen' or at least they didn't back when I started. Now everyone wants to be a drag queen because of Drag Race. I moved to Liverpool when I was 16 to be a make-up artist and I worked in Debenhams. I started going out to the nightclubs, I saw these drag queens and I was like 'Wow, this looks a lot more fun than standing still in the make-up department in Debenhams'. So, I started doing drag for £30 and a couple of free drinks a night, and I just worked my way up from there. I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would lead to all of this. I thought it was for a bit of extra beer money but then I realised 'This is actually a craft and an art form and it's no different to somebody who studies theatre'. Working in those nightclubs was my kind of university of drag. It was treading the boards, getting changed in disabled toilets and sitting on beer barrels waiting to go on.

How did winning RuPaul's Drag Race UK change your life?

Well, for starters I'm talking to you from a dressing room doing an Andrew Lloyd Webber written musical. Every day there's another thing where I go 'What is going on?' I was very, very lucky to be on the first series and it put me on a platform where people could see what I do. It showed people that drag isn't just having a laugh in a nightclub. It was like 'These queens can sew, they have to do their own make-up, they do their own wigs, they have to put together a whole show, they have to learn how to cut music and they can make costumes'. It's such a skilled art form. I was joking about the nightclubs being a university but there's nowhere really you can go and learn drag. There are no courses and it's not something you can do at theatre school. It's just something you've got to learn yourself and that's why you're constantly growing and evolving as a drag queen.

You've done so much TV since then. Any favourites?

Hunted was fun. Dancing on Ice was way up there and it's gonna be hard to beat that as a TV experience, but there are so many to choose from. I keep a little list on my phone and it's coming up to 200 TV shows since Drag Race within just four years. Going over to America and getting interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg is another highlight for sure. It's very humbling and you've got to just keep working at it to make it last.

What are you most looking forward to about taking The Wizard of Oz around the country?

I love touring. I tour a hell of a lot and it's the camaraderie between the cast that I really love. It's like you make a new family every six months once you start a new project, although I have to admit that it's awful when you stop because you're pulled away into the next project. You keep in touch but you don't get to see each other as much as you'd like. But it's about making those bonds as well as getting to put on an amazing show and putting smiles on people's faces. Backstage is always so much fun and you can't beat getting to travel around the country. You can't match it. I'm so, so lucky.

What couldn't you be on the road without?

My stick-on eyebrows. I shaved my eyebrows off because I'm a drag queen, so I have these transfer tattoos - you know, like the ones you had when you were a kid, fake tattoos that look really real. Without them on I look insane walking down the street.

How is it getting to open the tour in Liverpool?

It's wonderful. I've come to this theatre for years to watch shows, friends and tours, and I've done every other theatre in Liverpool apart from the Empire. I watched them building the set and I was like 'Wow' looking out into the auditorium and seeing seats that I've sat in and watched shows from. It's such a full-circle moment. It's very special being back in the city that Vivienne was born in. James was born in Wales but Vivienne was born in Liverpool. She's definitely a Scouse broad.

Image credit: Marc Brenner

The Wizard of Oz will tour the UK and Ireland throughout 2024, following a celebrated run at the world-famous London Palladium. It will be at the New Theatre Oxford where it plays from Wed 10 Jan – Sun 14 Jan.

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