Thursday 23 November 2023

Theatre review: The Witches

One of Roald Dahl's most popular books saw him write about an evil underground cabal he thought were secretly running the world for nefarious purposes, but fortunately on this occasion he was talking about witches. Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music and lyrics) take on the latest Dahl classic to get the musical theatre treatment. With Lizzie Clachan's staging cutting the front of the Olivier stage off and using designs that could easily fit into a more conventional proscenium arch, the National must be hoping The Witches does for them what Matilda did for the RSC. And, notwithstanding a running time that's pushing its luck with family audiences, they might get their wish. Ten-year-old Luke (Vishal Soni, alternating with Bertie Caplan and Frankie Keita) gets briskly orphaned at the start of the story, with the Norwegian grandmother he's never met before becoming his new guardian.

Gran (Sally Ann Triplett) claims to have spent her life hunting witches, creatures who disguise themselves as inconspicuous, mumsy women, but in fact hate all children and turn at least one a week into small animals or inanimate objects.

When Gran has a heart attack and is sent to a Bournemouth hotel to convalescence, Luke discovers all the stories are true, and that the hotel is hosting the witches' annual convention - where the Grand High Witch (Katherine Kingsley) announces a plan to turn all of England's children into mice in one go. They resolve to bring all the witches down once and for all, which is going to be particularly tricky as Luke was one of their first victims and is now a mouse.

I did raise an eyebrow at Malloy as the composer of a kids' show, but he's largely avoided targeting the music exclusively at eight-year-olds who like nothing more than a complex chord progression, and offers up some more traditionally lively songs. And his and Kirkwood’s collection of often very witty lyrics mean I’d be happy to listen to them again, even if I didn’t come out of the theatre with any of the tunes going around my head.

Lyndsey Turner’s production finds the right balance of comedy and subversive creepiness to keep both kids and adults happy, although I still think that, with it pushing the three-hour mark, there’s a very obvious glut of big setpieces in the second act that slightly dull the show’s shine: It’s fun to have a fourth-wall breaking song in which Kingsley’s witch punishes a bored child in the audience, but it might have been better not to run the risk of boring the kids in the first place. Honestly creatives, I don’t know how many times I have to say it but be brutal with cuts early on, you’ll reap the rewards when the audience is conscious for the big finale. 

Still, you can see how it might have been hard to choose what to lose from a perfectly-cast production: Chrissie Bhima as the Grand High Witch’s henchwoman gets a dramatic number introducing the conference of witches, Ekow Quartey and Maggie Service get to roam the Stalls searching for their child who’s been turned into a mouse, and Daniel Rigby gets to throw any number of hissy fits as the hotel manager dealing with a sudden rodent infestation.

Soni and a chorus of child actors put in a lot of good work, but mention also has to go to William Skinner (alternating with Cian Eagle-Service and George Menezes Cutts) as Bruno, the spoilt posh kid who’s perfected the art of simpering at old ladies until they give him sweets. It’s a flamboyant, unrestrained performance of the kind that’d stand out even from a seasoned adult actor – and somehow making the world’s most precocious child character watchable, let alone the highlight of a show, is a feat in itself.

I still wish the show hadn't outstayed its welcome by 15 minutes or so - the grand finale is a fun and frantic sequence following Luke climbing around the set to poison the withces' soup, but I wish it had come at a point just before everyone started checking their watches, rather than just after. Still, The Witches could well join the recent run of transfers from the National to the West End and maybe beyond - a show with such confidence it even manages to pull off a "happy" ending in which a ten-year-old is told he won't live to see twenty.

The Witches by Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is booking until the 27th of January at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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