Paul T Davies reviews Roald Dahl’s The Witches now playing at the National Theatre London.
21 November 2023
Sometimes, as a critic, it’s worth putting deep critical analysis to one side and simply enjoy the production being presented to you. I expected to write about the recent controversy involving twerks to the texts of Roald Dahl’s books, of the inherent misogyny implicit in portrayals of witches. However, the rousing opening number, A Note About Witches, deals with all that, the emphasis being on shoes, gloves and wigs to cover the signs of withes, no physical deformities or large noses here, and we discover what witches do, “We do yoga, we do Pilates.” From then on, the show is an utter joy, and sometimes, just sometimes, as a critic, you get to witness something really special.
It’s a show that serves up one delight after another, ten and half year old Luke is orphaned, teams up with Gran and fights to stop the coven of witches, who are holding their annual conference at the Majestic Hotel in Bournemouth, from feeding Formula 86 via sweets to every child in England, (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland presumably safe) and turn them into mice that can be squished. On press night, Bertie Caplan was a terrific Luke, the kind of young hero that you didn’t realise you needed until you walked into the theatre, his introduction song, Ready To Go, captures his spirit perfectly. Once he is orphaned, Sally Ann Triplett stomps onto the stage as Norwegian, cigar-smoking, witch hunter Gran, an outstanding creation, and the rapport between her and Caplan is a joy to watch. When the action moves to the Majestic, Daniel Rigby brings wonderful manic energy from his performance in Accidental Death of an Anarchist as Mr. Skinner, the Manager who denies that mice exist in his hotel. They are all topped by Cian Eagle-Service as sweet and chocolate loving Bruno, with his show-stopping routine Bruno Sweet Bruno bringing roars of approval. The chorus of witches are hilarious, and perhaps could be a little more threatening, and Katherine Kingsley a true villain as the Grand High Witch, pampered and worshipped, and extending her hatred of children out into the auditorium, her Act Two solo, Wouldn’t it Be Nice, making a plea to the parents in the audience to imagine how nice their lives would be without their children constantly interrupting.
The book and lyrics by Lucy Kirkwood remain rooted in the spirit of the original, witty, and very tongue-in-cheek, and the music and lyrics by Dave Malloy reflect the organised anarchy of the story. Director Lyndsey Turner keeps the production lively, and the design by Lizzie Clachan creates a storybook feel and moves as swiftly as the action. Occasionally some poignancy needs to be allowed to breathe a little, but the show works so well because the company are having a ball, it’s huge fun, and is the Christmas show to beat this season. It tops off a great year for the National, and I suspect another West End theatre may have to be found for another NT transfer.