Roald Dahl's The Witches

Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics), David Malloy (music and lyrics)
National Theatre
National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)

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Katherine Kingsley, Grand High Witch and the witches company Credit: Marc Brenner

The Witches is the National Theatre’s spellbinding, seasonal musical adaptation from Roald Dahl’s darkest tales for adults and brave children (over 8 at least). Adapted for stage by Lyndsey Turner, Lucy Kirkwood and David Malloy, the incarnation of such unsavoury characters as stage witches are gossipy busybodies who buy “cashmere cardis” from the Boden catalogue and wear gloves: more Margaret Thatcher than leaky cauldron.

These twin-set, handbagged charmers are a far cry from Dahl’s putrid poxes, poised as the most dangerous of all living creatures. Such monstrosities have “boiled egg heads”, square feet, claws and a penchant for “squelching” children. Trust a witch in pastels and you’ll be turned into something gruesome is the motto of this tale.

The story follows the fate of Luke (Frankie Keita), who ends up living with his eccentric, rather fabulous witch-hunting gran who flies in from Norway (Sally Ann Triplett) following his parents demise in a car crash, which all happens in the first 10 minutes.

Quickly moving on from tragic orphan status, swashbuckling granny, played brilliantly by Triplett, fills the space with swishing skirts, cigar puffing and a full-on obsession with witches and garden gnomes. Such knowledge comes into good practice when the pair stumble across the UK witches AGM in a Bournemouth hotel. Here, in a sealed-off conference room, it's gloves-off for the troublesome twin-sets as the group physically transform from ladies who lunch into claw-ridden, gnarly scalped, caterwauling witches, while the plot to turn Britain’s children into mice is revealed.

The long and the short of it is that the Grand High Witch is in town, played by uber-scary, but utterly mesmerising, Katherine Kingsley, here to berate her fellow brethren for only killing one child per week. Festive cheer? Don’t come looking for warm and fluffy seasonal platitudes unless it takes the shape of child turned mouse at risk of death by boot or mousetrap.

The tales are grim. Imagine, says one little girl stuck in a clock, playing on a beach building sandcastles one minute, and the next, appearing on the mantelpiece as an inanimate object. Or being a child trapped in a painting with no voice. The list goes on; clearly the stuff of childhood nightmares, but handled farcically to soften the brutal imagery in a high-ball slapstick script from Kirkwood, packed with potions and magic. There’s even a sprinkling of Nutcracker kitsch as the children, transformed into inanimate objects from mice to tins of tomatoes, pop out of rainbow-coloured boxes.

Gruesome as things seem, the witches still come across as more comical than abominable with their zombie choreographic movements and shamanic chanting, jauntily choreographed by Stephen Mear. The switch between witches posing as lollipop lady or dog walkers luring unassuming children into their coven of poison is funny rather than devastating.

Performances are radiant with standout stars from the Young Company. Frankie Keita is a lightly energetic Luke, all smiles and gentle demeanour, mirroring cleverly up against his new pal, the preconscious Bruno, the sugar-snaffling ladies' man child, who thinks he can charm his way to chocolate.

The hotel manager, Mr Stringer (Daniel Rigby), is pure comic genius in his undersized red suit and suppressed anxiety that just bubbles then boils over as he bounds around his hotel; a cross between Fawlty Towers and the White Lotus, assuring snobby guests that there are no vermin at the Majestic.

Dave Malloy’s songs (with lyrics by Malloy and Kirkwood) don’t quite stick in the same way as they do in Matilda, but perhaps it’s less about the music and more about the flamboyant character overload in this show.

There are some simpering standout numbers. "Wouldn’t It Be Nice?", the Grand High Witch's hate song directed towards stinky children, is genuinely terrifying yet funny, with Kingsley’s performance a magisterial cross between evil matron and dominatrix.

Other musical highlights include "Bruno Sweet Bruno", a hilarious ditty about his sugar high; all grins and tap shoes, the number wouldn’t look out of place in an MGM musical. George Menezes Cutts is impressive as young Bruno. His voice is pure and believable, as are so many children in the cast, with special mention to Jersey Blu Georgia, who plays the gnome Helga that comes to life.

Large doses of creative license within Turner’s direction, working alongside the comic script, she builds an imaginative stage firing on all cylinders, including the masterful revolving set from Lizzie Clachan, the highlight being the powder pink Hotel Magnificent that moves from gilded bedrooms to a filthy staff kitchen, Ratatouille style.

In a genius directorial moment, perhaps the biggest fright of the night (and there are many) happens when a mobile phone rings in the auditorium in the middle of the High Witch song. Kingsley convincingly terrorises a poor unassuming child sitting in the stalls, but thankfully it’s all pre-planned and part of the shtick. It takes a moment for the penny to drop.

What is the theatrical definition of The Witches? Is it a musical, pantomime, slice of seasonal fun, or genuinely moving theatre about the plight of children stuck in a hostile world? Who knows? But with such excellent production values and genuine heart behind performances, who cares? It’s great entertainment.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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