Review by Daz Gale
There's a wave of expectation riding on the National Theatre's big Christmas musical this year. Not only does it follow 3 productions in the Olivier Theatre that have transferred to the West End this year alone (Dear England, Standing at the Sky's Edge, and The Motive and the Cue) it also has the unenviable task of adapting a Roald Dahl classic, following in the footsteps of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. With the bar set ridiculously high, will The Witches be able to execute their plan effectively or would this production be as meek as a mouse?
First published in 1983, Roald Dahl’s The Witches was adapted into an iconic movie in 1990 and an underwhelming remake in 2020. While it has been adapted into a play in the past, this marks the first time the story has been turned into a musical. It tells the story of 10-year-old Luke and his grandmother who unexpectedly come across the Grand High Witch who plans to turn all the children in England into mice and have to find a way to stop her.
Perhaps Roald Dahl’s most terrifying story, finding the right tone to transform The Witches for the stage in a way that retains the high stakes and doesn’t turn the whole thing into a parody or panto requires a careful balance and, for the most part, this version has managed that brilliantly. There are one or two moments where the tone of the show does tend to veer off creating a handful of inconsistent sequences, particularly in the show’s climactic sequences, most notably ‘Get Up’ which feels like it could be from a different show entirely. However, by this point, the show has won you over so much, that you happily gloss over the inconsistency of it all.
That is the only mild criticism I have of The Witches and what has stopped it from getting that elusive fifth star for me. As for the rest of the production, to say I was wowed would be a huge understatement.
Lucy Kirkwood’s book beautifully navigates Roald Dahl’s original text and transforms it effortlessly for the stage, modernising the setting (expect references to TikTok and selfies galore) but never detracting from the core story. The essence of the story remains with all the key characters and aspects that have made The Witches so well-regarded over the last 40 years, while admirably bringing something new to the story. The dialogue is also wickedly funny with clever multi-layered text which will appeal to both children and adults. Expect a small dose of toilet humour, some great sight gags, and an unexpectedly filthy one-liner from the Grand High Witch which made me laugh far more loudly than I had wanted.
Taking such a well-known and loved story and finding songs that tell the story effectively without feeling like they have been shoehorned in isn’t an easy task but thankfully there is no problem with the songs on offer here. Dave Malloy’s music feels instantly memorable, full of earworms that make you feel like a spell has been put on you, such is the immediate nature of them. Malloy and Kirkwood’s lyrics are immediately accessible but full of more intelligence than initially appears, with tongue twisters, surprising rhymes, and addictively nonsensical lyrics (soup…) creating a delicious mix of flavours. Musical highlights include the stunning act two opener ‘Don’t Say Mice’, the immediately iconic ‘Bruno Sweet Bruno’, and the surprisingly beautiful ‘When I Was Young’ wonderfully performed by Sally Ann Triplett as Gran.
The musical numbers lend themselves to fantastical choreography and Stephen Mear delivers this in spades, amazing audiences with their scale and execution throughout, These are most apparent in ‘Don’t Say Mice’ and ‘Magnificent’ whose title can only describe itself. Similarly, Lyndsey Turner’s direction is continually inspiring with bold choices in the staging and characterisations, brilliantly bringing Lucy Kirkwood’s (and Roald Dahl’s) story to life. Fittingly for a show about magical beings, the magic used in the show is also spectacular with illusions designed and directed by Chris Fisher and Will Houston creating some outstanding stage trickery as characters disappear and miraculously reappear elsewhere as well as an inspired use of the transformations.
Visually, The Witches is a feast for the eyes with a jaw-droppingly good set design from Lizzie Clachan. Continuing the stunning staging the Olivier Theatre has boasted in their productions this year, the eerie, ominous surroundings of the show create a gorgeous setting that never falters, with transitions into contrasting settings all played out with a grandeur suitable of the Grand High Witch, Ash J Woodward’s video design is exemplary throughout, particularly in the opening sequence of the show which uses glorious animation to punctuate elements in the story. The visualisation is completed with an expert lighting design from Bruno Poet, plunging the stage into darkness, turning a spotlight on an unsuspecting audience member, and ensuring the whole thing always looks beautiful.
We’ve established how fantastic all of the production elements are in The Witches so ensuring a cast match this high quality is crucial. It’s fair to say this incredible cast more than manages this. Sally Ann Triplett is comedy gold as Gran, bounding in with an energy that would terrify anyone who crosses her path in a strong and stunning performance. Daniel Rigby is an undoubted standout as Mr Stringer, the manager of the hotel whose larger-than-life personality threatens to steal any scene he is involved with. Irvine Iqbal, while underused, shines in two key scenes as differing characters, particularly shining as Chef Chevalier.
The Witches is a show that demands a lot from its talented young cast with three performers each sharing the roles of Luke and Bruno. On this night, I got to witness Frankie Keita delighting with his warm and energetic portrayal of Luke, proving himself as a star of tomorrow. As Bruno, George Menezes Cutts was a force of nature in a charismatic and cheeky performance that was one of the highlights of the consistently strong cast.
Katherine Kingsley wows with her performance as the Grand High Witch, stepping into the uncomfortable shoes of such an iconic role. With her dismissive nature, she is a joy to watch albeit a bit terrifying as she evokes fear in every child (and big child) in her presence including a truly ingenious moment that sees her admonish an “audience member” (possibly a plant, who can say?). With a standout moment in musical number ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and a Cilla Black impersonation that came as a surprise surprise, there is much to admire in her remarkable performance. Equally impressive is her troupe of witches, all of whom impress with no weak link to be seen, Highlights among them include Chrissie Bhima dominating in key moments as Melanie and Zoe Birkett getting a small but memorable role as Pippa.
Often, taking such a well-loved story and transforming it into a musical doesn’t quite land in the way it should with their plans to capture the attention of children all over the world ultimately foiled. The Witches should be studied for future generations to come in how to take a classic story and effortlessly turn it into a classic musical. With truly impressive production values, a strikingly brilliant cast, and a book that retains the essence of the story while boldly bringing something new to it, The Witches is a resounding success. While there are one or two minor tweaks I mentioned earlier that prevent this from being completely perfect (and a couple of inevitable issues with rogue props), the flaws only add to its charm and can be expected considering this is only the first time this production has been seen on the stage.
Three productions at the Olivier Theatre this year have announced West End transfers… don’t be surprised when this becomes the fourth. In this production, I witnessed the birth of a new classic which I have no doubt could go on to be as big as Matilda. I fully expect world domination to be in the future of this show which is pure theatre magic.
The Witches plays at the Olivier Theatre until 27th January 2024. Tickets from nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner (Photos depict other members of the young company)