Stuart King

THE WITCHES at National Theatre, Olivier

Following in the footsteps of the author’s Matilda, comes the latest of Roald Dahl’s stories to cast a theatrical magic spell over kids and adults alike. The National’s musical production of THE WITCHES, comes courtesy of Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy and it is quite simply an absolute zinger.

William Skinner (Bruno), Maggie Service (Mrs Jenkins) and Ekow Quartey (Mr Jenkins) in The Witches at the National Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.Cian Eagle-Service (Bruno) and Bertie Caplan (Luke) in The Witches at the National Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.

This super-energised, tongue-in-cheek escapade stays true to the original story whilst subtly incorporating a veritable smorgasbord of knowing current references, with jokes about everything from meaningless political tag-lines to mobile phone use in theatres! Irrespective of it being opening night and early in the run, virtually every gag landed, and (despite the old theatrical adage about not working with animals or children), the youngsters barely put a foot wrong and brought the house down with their slick comic timing and delivery. Bertie Caplin and Cian Eagle-Service as Luke and Bruno respectively, dazzled in their numbers and wowed with their ability to hit the cues demanded of them (especially given the sheer quantity of tricks and sharply timed disappearances necessary, following their transformation from boys into mice).

Dahl’s macabre and twisted mind knew how to make children wince and giggle in the same breath, and it is precisely that magical skill which elicits smiles, guffaws and appreciative applause from audience members of all ages, throughout the entire show.

Ten-and-a-half years old Luke loses his parents in a car accident. His only living relative, his cigar-smoking, octogenarian, Norwegian grandmother (a nod to Dahl’s own heritage) comes to look after him and tells tales of witches and how to discern them. Before long they are on the south coast staying at Bournemouth’s Hotel Magnificent, where (as luck would have it) England’s witches are gathered under the watchful eye of the Grand High Witch herself, to receive a new potion — Formula 86 — a single drop of which when administered in a sweet, will eliminate all the pesky, dog-poo smelling children in the land. The tale is of course the sort of mad-cap bunkum lapped-up by kids of all ages, but it also serves as a simplistic metaphor for good trouncing evil and bravery overcoming fear.

West End stalwart Sally Ann Triplet as Gran and Katharine Kingsley as the Grand High Witch each have moments to dazzle, ably supported by an entire coven of tap dancing witches, sundry hotel porters, chambermaids, chefs and yet another brilliant comic turn from Daniel Rigby as hotel manager Mr Stringer who gradually unravels as his pride and joy is overrun with vermin and guests assail him with complaints.

With choreography from the ubiquitous Stephen Mear, and colourful stylised sets and costumes by Lizzi Clachan, Lyndsey Turner has worked her magic and kept all the plates spinning directing this complicated and busy production with aplomb. Under Cat Beveridge’s baton the musical numbers are a joy and surely the roof will lift off at the end of Bruno Sweet Bruno at every performance. At the end of the run, a West End transfer is absolutely assured.