BWW Review: THE WORST WITCH, Royal and Derngate
The world premiere of a stage version of Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch is the non-panto festive show at Northampton's Royal and Derngate this Christmas, ahead of a national tour in 2019.
The adventures of Mildred Hubble have been around since before Hogwarts was a twinkle in J. K. Rowling's eye, and there have been several TV series as well, so chances are you've probably met Mildred and the gang before.
But in this adaptation by Emma Reeves (Olivier nominated for Hetty Feather), directed by Theresa Heskins (The Snow Queen and Around the World in 80 Days, New Vic), she and her friends - now entering their final year at Miss Cackle's Academy - are staging a play to non-magical people (that's us, the audience) about some of the adventures from their first year. Chaos obviously ensues, as well as danger threatening the future of the school.
I will admit that I was dubious about the play-within-a-play concept for the first half (after all, why would horrible Ethel, the snobby class bully, be prepared to re-enact her bad behaviour for a school show?), but there was a reason, and all became clear in the second half as the plot accelerated to a climax.
Directed by Theresa Heskins, this is a very well put together show, which has really thought about the whole experience. Ahead of the start, the teaching staff of Cackle's Academy mingled among the audience, while banners on the stage extolled the academic excellence of a witching education.
There are plenty of jokes, and the catchy folk-inflected songs (composed by Luke Potter and played by the cast) make this fun and keep everything moving along at a brisk clip. There are some scary moments, but the humour of the piece - which includes Polly Lister playing Miss Cackle and her evil twin sister at the same time and in the same scene - helps stop it from becoming too scary for children. However, because of the slightly more complicated plot, this is probably one for the over-8s.
There are strong performances from the whole cast, and boy do they all have a lot to do, with aerial work, puppetry and a touch of magic as well as singing, dancing and in some cases playing instruments. I was particularly impressed with Rosie Abraham as Ethel, as well as Danielle Bird as Mildred.
Simon Daw's cleverly designed multi-level set provides a home for the instruments as well as a variety of settings and hiding places and combines with lighting design by Aideen Malone (A Monster Calls) to make a suitably spooky and witchy atmosphere.
Of course, if you're doing a show about witches you can't avoid the Harry Potter issue - and this doesn't try to. There is a spattering of knowing jokes about boy wizards and owls, but it is very much setting its own terms and dancing to its own beat. And that's definitely to its benefit.
I'm not the target audience, but I had fun watching it, and of course you won't have to wait long to catch it. This is a fun alternative to panto for children this Christmas - and I can see it being a favourite with schools as it tours the country in the New Year.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan