Review: The Witches, National Theatre

Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy’s riotous musical take on The Witches is a spectacular success at the National Theatre

“Put on your wigs
Put on your gloves
Put on your shoes
And prepare for a demonstration”

From the bookable puzzle adventure trail to the Formula 86 cocktails at the bar (available with or without vodka), the National Theatre have gone in hard with their festive show this year and the really good news is that The Witches is a stonkingly good success. I’m of an age that the Anjelica Huston-led 1990 film version was irrevocably imprinted on my impressionable mind but this adaptation by Lucy Kirkwood (book and lyrics) and Dave Malloy (music and lyrics) does a fantastic job of reshaping it for a contemporary audience.

Luke is a chirpy 10-and-a-half year old whose main concern in life is turning 11 so that he can get the pet dog his parents have promised him once he’s that age but since he is a Roald Dahl character, he’s quickly orphaned and only rescued from living in care by the late arrival of his Norwegian gran who he’s never met and who has a heart condition. But as they decamp to the Hotel Magnificent in Bournemouth for a little R&R, their visit coincides with a convention of witches who have gathered to arrange the extermination of every child in the UK.

Lyndsey Turner’s production is a rip-roaring, riotous good time right from the off, with its pre-show spot-the-child game and opening number for its witches who are established here as otherworldly creatures who disguise themselves as ‘ordinary’ women because it is societal misogyny that renders them invisible, Kirkwood effectively reclaiming the position from Dahl. Lizzie Clachan’s design does a great job of both utilising the considerable space of the Olivier and making it feel claustrophobically intimate at times as Luke and his new pal Bruno end up transformed by their encounter with the Grand High Witch.

What really worked for me was the way in which the show is opened out to almost an ensemble piece. There’s a real spread of love to many of the supporting characters and thus constant delights emerging from scene to scene. Bruno (William Skinner at this performance) is show-stoppingly good as a smooth-talking, tap-dancing charmer (choreography from Stephen Mear); Daniel Rigby’s hotel manager is hilariously vivid as he tries to balance pest extermination with customer service; Irvine Iqbal is great fun too as a doctor and chef (though not at the same time).

I loved Dave Malloy’s score too, unafraid to be a bit daring with its atypical blend of musical theatre and something altogether grittier and stranger. With some top tier casting for the leads – Sally Ann Triplett’s gruffly emotive Gran and Katherine Kingsley’s iconic Grand High Witch joined by a superb Vishal Soni as Luke (a role shared with Bertie Caplan and Frankie Keita) – The Witches sounds great (MD Cat Beveridge leading a hidden orchestra) and looks an absolute treat too (Clachan’s costumes match up to the exceptional standard) as it winds its way to a bittersweetly beautiful conclusion. Hugely recommended.

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