The Witches

Roald Dahl, adapted by David Wood
Wyndham's Theatre

The Witches publicity image

Roald Dahl has become a cult figure with both real and grown-up children. Indeed, this summer a Roald Dahl Museum is to open which puts him in the league of Shakespeare, Dickens and Beatrix Potter.

His writing has appealed as much on stage and screen as in written form and this has much to do with the efforts of David Wood. He has adapted no fewer than six Dahl books into plays including The Witches, as far back as 1992.

This book has proved popular with adapters. It was also made into a film directed by Nicolas Roeg, of all people, featuring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, together with English stars including Rowan Atkinson, Jane Horrocks and Brenda Blethyn.

This production is advertised as suitable for children from the age of seven upwards. The performance times through the Easter holidays of 10.30, 2 and 7 suit tiny audiences, although some may be petrified by the action on stage. Children seem to delight in the gruesome, so maybe it is only the adults that shiver.

Under Jonathan Church's direction, the pace is almost always pedestrian but the effects are special.

The storyline is relatively simple. A small boy, played by Giles Cooper, is introduced to the devilry of witchcraft by Dilys Laye, as his sweet, pipe-smoking grandmother.

There is an inevitability of his being thrust into battle against the Grand High Witch herself, played by TV star Ruby Wax (who is not appearing in all performances). The surprise is that they meet at a witches' AGM taking place in a luxurious hotel in Bournemouth, a town hitherto better known for hosting the Conservative Party conference.

Granny has told the boy how to recognise a Witch. The gloves in summer, funny noses and, worst of all, wigs covering carbuncular heads that look like flower-encrusted swimming caps are supposed to be the giveaways. For some reason, the dowdy summer dresses that will be familiar to devotees of the seaside postcards were left off her list.

The only exception is glamour-puss Grand High Witch, Miss Wax. She looks a million dollars in a figure-hugging black dress with scarlet scarf. This Germanic daughter of the devil cackles a great deal, never more so than when she announces her plan to turn all of the children of England into mice. Mind you, when one coven member steps out of line, she gets nearly as much fun "cooking her like a carrot".

While this might sound evil, if all children were like her first victim, Keith Saha's greedy Bruno, surely a comedic descendant of Billy Bunter, with ghastly parents who bring to mind Quentin Blake's illustrations for the book, few tears would be shed at their transformation into mice. These changes are brilliantly devised by the magic consultant to Guinness World Records and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Paul Kieve. Quite how he manages to convert some fairly hefty actors into thin air must remain his secret.

The fun does not really start until the two boys become mice. Designer Simon Higlett creates a set of gigantic proportions for them with five foot high stairs and massive electrical sockets. Here, the mice come into their own in a ballet and some comedy reminiscent of the silent movie era. We get Buster Keaton-like solo scenes and touches of Laurel and Hardy but all still in a rather slow motion.

There are also entertaining puppets designed by Craig Denston, although the cast have not entirely got to grips with the handovers to them. On occasions, these are reminiscent of a relay race where the baton never quite hits the hand.

Most people will go and see this show because they love Roald Dahl's work or are big Ruby Wax fans. The former will have a great time seeing their old friends on stage. However, for those over the age of puberty who do not know the books, films or plays, this may not be the best introduction.

Miss Wax, whose stage work other than one-woman shows has largely been with the RSC some time ago, gives a solid rather than an inspired performance. It may well be that she lacks confidence after such a long absence from the acting limelight and will get into things as the run develops.

David Chadderton reviewed the touring version of this show (without Ms Wax) at The Lowry, Salford Quays

Reviewer: Philip Fisher