Adapting a story as well-known as The Witches was always going to be a gamble – beloved by those of us raised on a diet of Roald Dahl stories (which is probably a sizeable proportion of the UK population, and countless more around the world), it’s one of those stories many will have a lifelong attachment to. It’s also arriving on one of the most prominent stages, just in time for Christmas, with an impressive array of talent in the cast and creative team. Can this new musical adaptation (book by Lucy Kirkwood, music by Dave Malloy, they share lyric writing responsibilities) at the National Theatre live up to expectations?
The Witches is proof that risks are absolutely worth taking – this new production really delivers. We don’t want to give too much away, as the best bits of the show were those that completely caught us off-guard – there are certainly plenty of unexpectedly delightful moments, in terms of the staging and choreography. Musically it’s very strong – from the barnstorming opening number ‘A Note About Witches’ through to the dazzling ‘Bruno Sweet Bruno’ (which earned a mid-show standing ovation), we found ourselves consistently impressed by the quality of the songwriting and the arrangements.
It’s a show full of memorable performances, too. Daniel Rigby – who we saw this summer as the lead in Accidental Death of an Anarchist – is once again superb in his hilariously camp portrayal of hotel manager Mr Stringer; Katherine Kingsley seems to relish the Disney Villain-esque role of the Grand High Witch, an absolute gift of a part; and each of the child stars (on press night we had Bertie Caplan as Luke, Cian Eagle-Service as Bruno and Jersey Blu Georgia as Helga) is excellent. It’s also a surprisingly funny show – there are numerous lough-out-loud funny punchlines and they all land beautifully.
If we were to be extremely picky, we did have a handful of minor issues. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the original story, but there are a few adjustments which purists may not be completely on board with. It also dials down the scary and dials up the sentimentality – mostly it’s fine, but occasionally it feels a little schmaltzy. Noticeably the pace drops after the interval – we were absolutely blown away by act one, while we thought act two was great, but stopped short of being spectacular; and although it never drags, we felt it could have been slightly shorter. 2hrs 45mins is a substantial running time for a show aimed at families.
Small gripes aside, we had a genuinely fantastic evening with this entertaining new musical. Whether or not it goes on to rival the longevity of West End hit Matilda remains to be seen, but we left the National Theatre feeling as though The Witches should certainly give it a run for its money.
GAY TIMES gives The Witches – 4/5
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