BWW Review: THE WORST WITCH, Vaudeville Theatre
Move over, Hogwarts - Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches is in town! Fresh from a UK tour, Emma Reeves' adaptation of Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch comes slipping and sliding into the West End for a summer residency at the Vaudeville Theatre. This musical stage version of the much-loved books is directed by Theresa Heskins and features an all-female cast.
Mildred Hubble has never quite fit in, so when she unexpectedly finds herself as a witch-in-training with brand new friends she's determined to keep hold of her place; with Maud's help, she manages to survive Ethel's tricks and Miss Hardbroom's withering glare, showing marked improvements as the weeks go by.
The constant threat of expulsion gets all too much for Mildred, however, and she decides to run away with her beloved kitten Tabby - though this leads to her uncovering a wicked plot against headmistress Miss Cackle, and she must decide whether or not to return to the school and help.
The production is framed as an end-of-term school show, devised by Mildred herself, so the girls' cats have been left at the Academy and magic is strictly forbidden. This is actually a really canny way of explaining away some of the more lo-tech aspects of the production - the finger puppet cats, for example - that obviously enable it to be toured more easily, and adds to its charm. It also sets this adaptation apart, allowing for a selection of the books' stories to be told but firmly in the context of the theatre.
For a certain generation of adults, it's a great nostalgia trip; many will have grown up with either the books or the TV series (or potentially both), and getting to see beloved characters playing out some familiar scenarios is thoroughly enjoyable. This is a family show through and through, with plenty of jokes scattered across the two hours that will appeal to parents, and the rest is an absolute treat for children of all ages - a liberal dose of silliness, a smidgen of audience participation, and a touch of magic is more than enough to keep the entire auditorium enthralled.
Simon Daw's set design is simple but rather striking, and it really is a joy to see the Academy uniform (replete with house sashes) just as you might imagine it. Music plays a big part in the production, with several catchy numbers from Luke Potter; Megan Leigh Mason (Miss Drill) and Molly-Grace Cutler (Miss Bat) are almost continuously present in the musicians' section of the set, playing music and creating all manner of sound effects with the help of other members of the cast.
Danielle Bird is brilliantly cast as the clumsy and unlucky Mildred, gamely throwing herself about and even clambering through an unsuspecting audience. Her performance is incredibly charming, leaving you rooting for her from the very first encounter. Consuela Rolle is another crowd favourite as the wise-cracking Enid Nightshade, and Rosie Abraham is enjoyably evil as the snobbish Ethel Hallow. Rachel Heaton keeps everyone in check as the stern Miss Hardbroom, whilst Polly Lister clearly revels in playing both the kindly Miss Cackle and her ostentatiously evil twin, Agatha.
If you're looking for something to occupy the kids and keep them out of the heat, then look no further. With most performances taking place during the afternoon throughout the summer holidays, it's a fun day out for all the family that will inspire the next generation of witches.
Picture credit: Manuel Harlan