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The Witches at the Olivier Theatre National Theatre | Review

Given the title of the production, a coven of fifteen witches (yes, I looked up the collective noun for witches) doesn’t feature as prominently as one might expect, even if the narrative of this musical adaptation is very faithful to the source material. The unnamed seven-year-old boy in the book is called Luke in the musical (on press night, Bertie Caplan, sharing the role with Frankie Keita and Vishal Soni), ten-and-a-half years old. The grandmother figure (Sally Ann Triplett) also has a name, although as the programme only calls her Gran I shall keep faith with the production and stick with that.

Katherine Kingsley (Grand High Witch) in The Witches at the National Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.
Katherine Kingsley (Grand High Witch) in The Witches at the National Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.

For some, the elephant in the room isn’t even directly about this production, but rather about the revision controversy with regards to alterations to Roald Dahl’s books due to their use of, by contemporary standards, stereotypes and potentially problematic vocabulary. At a time of outright war in the Middle East, the production avoids the usual traditional portrayal of witches as women with pointy noses (a possible form of antisemitism) – and there are no pointy hats either. The emphasis is instead placed on the witches’ wigs (to cover the bald heads), gloves (to cover the claws) and shoes (to cover square feet). The dastardly plot by the Grand High Witch (Katherine Kingsley) involves a rather elaborate plan to rid England (and only England) of children who can be enticed to partake of free sweets and chocolates laced with a potion called Formula 86 – presumably formulas 1 to 85 didn’t work.

In the spirit of the original text, there are all sorts of putdowns placed on various characters, and not only in the form of witches condemning children. Gran in particular is looked down on, thanks to an eccentric dress sense and unconventional behaviours. Much of the action takes place in the Hotel Magnificent, in Bournemouth, where Luke and his grandmother are sent for a holiday, on doctor’s orders after Gran has a health scare. The general manager there, Mr Stringer (Daniel Rigby), gets some of the show’s best punchlines, delivered by Rigby with the rigour and bombast London audiences will have experienced previously in the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre’s production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is a delight to witness in the large ensemble numbers, and the production makes good use of the Olivier Theatre’s stage revolve. Overall, the show was more humorous than I had expected, and there were some laugh-out-loud moments. The production gives a trio of young performers opportunities to shine, backed by a ‘young company ensemble’, and while Luke took the final bow at curtain call, it was Bruno (on press night, Cian Eagle-Service, sharing the role with George Menezes Cutts and William Skinner) who brought the house down before the interval following a show-stopping song and dance number that might as well have been from something like Crazy For You or 42nd Street.

The performance ebbs and flows, and anybody looking for magic transformations on stage is going to be disappointed at times, even if the ones involving the child characters are impressive. Even on press night, there were plenty of children in the audience, and occasionally some of the language might be a bit too colourful for their parents to be entirely comfortable with (nothing they wouldn’t have heard in the school playground). I also wonder if the show, at two hours forty-five minutes, is a tad too long for younger patrons, even if it did feel considerably shorter. Not a perfect show, it does at least have plenty of heart. Perhaps it isn’t as grotesque as the title might suggest, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this engaging and enthusiastic production followed some other recent National Theatre successes and secured a West End transfer at some point.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A musical adventure

Everything you know about witches is wrong. Forget the pointy hats and broomsticks: they’re the most dangerous creatures on earth.

And now they’ve come up with their most evil plan yet.

The only thing standing in their way is Luke and his Gran. But he’s ten and she’s got a dodgy heart. Time is short, danger is everywhere, and they’ve got just one chance to stop the witches from squalloping every stinking little child in England.

Until 27th January 2024

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