The Witches

David Wood, based on the novel by Roald Dahl
Curve and Rose Theatre Kingston in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Nicola Hawkins (Witch), Bobby Delaney (Witch), Sarah Ingram (The Grand High Witch) and Harveen Mann (Witch) Credit: Anthony Robling

This year marks the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, and throughout the last twelve months there have been numerous events—including films, TV programmes and museum exhibitions—to celebrate his astonishing literary career.

Over the Christmas period, several adaptations of his work are being staged across the country, including James and the Giant Peach at Northern Stage in Newcastle and Fantastic Mr Fox at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

Over the next two months, the West Yorshire Playhouse will host Curve’s production of The Witches (1983), which is widely regarded as Dahl’s most macabre work for children. Seasoned adaptor David Wood sticks closely to the original novel, capturing its distinctive blend of comedy and horror.

At the beginning of the show, the unnamed child protagonist (Fox Jackson Keen)—referred to as ‘Boy’ throughout the show—loses his parents in a car accident and goes to live with his beloved grandmother (Jenna Augen) in Norway. She warns him to be on the lookout for witches who devote their lives to “squelching” children with their magical powers.

Fortunately, there are various ways of spotting them: their bald heads mean they have to wear wigs; their clawed hands force them to wear gloves; their toeless feet are squashed uncomfortably into pointy shoes and they have blue spit.

Whilst staying at a seaside hotel in Bournemouth, Boy accidentally intrudes upon the annual meeting of the English witches chaired by the terrifying Grand High Witch (Sarah Ingram) who unveils her plans to turn the children of England into mice. Unfortunately, our hero is spotted by the coven and turned into a rodent. Can Boy and his grandmother foil the witches’ scheme? Will our young hero ever become human again?

Nikolai Foster’s production offers an enjoyably sinister alternative to the sugary sweetness of other Christmas shows. As the actors make clear at the beginning of the show, The Witches takes place in a dangerous world where children’s lives are in constant danger. There were a couple of moments that I found surprisingly creepy—not least the appearance of a giant snake—but I didn’t hear any crying from the younger audience members.

The cast of actor-musicians pull out all the stops in order to keep the audience engaged. Sarah Ingram is terrific as the evillest of all the witches, banishing memories of Anjelica Huston in the 1990 film. Fox Jackson Keen is hugely likeable as the child protagonist and demonstrates impressive acrobatic skills. Also worth mentioning is Jonny Weldon, who clearly relishes the role of Bruno—a spoiled brat who is also transformed into a mouse by the witches.

The show has been inventively designed by Isla Shaw. The eclectic set—which incorporates a diverse range of elements, including a tree, a spiral staircase and a piano—is used to evoke a range of different locations. The witches’ whacky, punk-inspired outfits are extremely eye-catching and reminded me of Vivienne Westwood couture.

The Witches is an enjoyably rambunctious family show filled with mind-boggling illusions, impressive physical movement and catchy musical numbers. I have no doubt that it will entertain Roald Dahl fans both young and old.

Reviewer: James Ballands