Review: THE WITCHES, National Theatre

A rip-roaring, acid-tongued delight of a show.

By: Nov. 22, 2023
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Review: THE WITCHES, National Theatre
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The WitchesI'm sure there will be more than a few sighs of relief down the corridors of The National Theatre at the deservedly raptuous reception for The Witches, the latest attempt to bring a hit show to the stage at this lucrative time of year. "We're not women, we're hell" is not a line you would expect at a family show, but Lyndsey Turner's production combines exuberant fun, quick-witted comedy and a positive attitude towards death to produce an entralling, clever and incredibly funny production.

The show sticks pretty closely to the orginal story; an orphaned boy teams up with his witch-hunting grandmother to try and rid England of The Witches who threaten to wipe out every child. These witches look like ordinary women, but plan to turn all children into mice.

The Witches
Katherine Kingsley (Grand High Witch) and The Witches company

Bryony Jarvis-Taylor's casting brings together a great team. Sally Ann Triplett (looking remarkable for 85) begins as a hardened witch-hunter as Gran, softening as she reveals her backstory and falls in love with her grandson. 

Katherine Kingsley vamps it up nicely as a Greta Garbo-esque Grand High Witch, delivering an ode to exasperated parents "Wouldn't It be Nice?" with acid-tongued aplomb, appropriately commanding the stage.

Maggie Service and Ekow Quartey are hilarious as Bruno's pompous and pretentious parents and Daniel Rigby almost steals the show in a scenery-chewing turn as increasingly unhinged hotel manager Mr Stringer. 

The Witches
Daniel Rigby (Mr Stringer) and Miracle Chance (Denise)

Fourteen actors make up the coven of witches; they are a cohesive and sharply rehearsed group. Chrissie Bhima is manically efficient as Melanie, Zoe Birkett shows real menace as Pippa and the ever-reliable Tiffany Graves is eye-catching as Kathy. 

The children are exceptional; committed and enthusiastic while never veering into being annoyingly starry. On press night BERTIE Caplan was a hugely likable Luke, natural and a character you automatically root for. The chemistry he has with Triplett is genuinely touching.

Cian Eagle-Service was a wonderfully precocious Bruno, the sugar-loving posh boy and "one of the top five rated children in Oxfordshire". He gets one of the best numbers with "Bruno Sweet Bruno", a big band, tap-dancing extravaganza accompanied by several dancers fitted out as a chorus line with delectable sweet treats on their heads. Stephen Mear's choreography is absolutely wonderful throughout.

The Witches
Cian Eagle-Service (Bruno) and company

The overall aesthetic is fabulous. The huge revolving stage allows Lizzie Clachan to have a ball with the set design; projections of gnarly tree branches hang ominously over the stage, mimicking The Witches' fingers, we have a family kitchen, a hotel lobby, several hotel rooms, the dining room and a wickedly detailed and filthy kitchen.

The square toes and clawed fingers of The Witches are deftly portrayed with purple dye, rather than awkward prosthetics. Overall the sets are a riot of textures and colour.

The show is aimed at those aged eight and over; there is nothing that will give anyone nightmares here. However, the moment when The Grand High Witch removes her mask to reveal a nightmare face is supposed to be properly terrifying. However, it is lessened slightly by the fact that the mask does not move with Kingsley's face and so it looks like, well, a mask.

Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music and lyrics) make a remarkable duo with huge wit and warmth, capturing the magic of Dahl's writing, without dumbing down the darkness. One slightly unwelcome theme is the repetition of certain words or phrases at the end of many of the songs; over and over again.

The length, at nearly three hours including interval, may be a bit of a stretch for younger audience members and a few sections of the second half meander a little. However, most of the production whips by in a stream of pure entertainment.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with the juggernaut that is Matilda The Musical. While this show is not quite at that point, it is certainly snapping at Matilda's heels.

The Witches is at The National Theatre until 26 January

Photo Credits: Manuel Harlan