A fatal car crash, generational genocide, and child mortality. Not themes that typically spring to mind for a Christmas show. Unless it’s
A welcome addition to any family Christmas this year
But add Roald Dahl. Some musical numbers. Colour it pink enough to make Jordan consider remarrying. And you have this year’s family-friendly (ish) Christmas treat, now being served at the National Theatre’s Olivier.
And what a treat The Witches is, complete with camp performances, catchy songs, cheeky jokes, and cute kids. Sure, there’s the odd disappointment, but hey, isn’t that part of Christmas too?
Not a fairy tale
“This is not a fairy tale”, a disembodied voice booms. With that, we’re into the first number. A lollipop lady, a nurse, a teacher, and suchlike, tell us they are not the kindly, cardigan-wearing, middle-class ladies they seem. They are HELL!!!
The tone is set for this latest Dahl adaptation by Lucy Kirkwood (The Welkin, Mosquitoes) and Dave Molloy (Moby Dick, Preludes). Flipping between darkness and light, with humour both silly and sharp, it’s a family show you can enjoy without a family.
First published 40 years ago, The Witches has been adapted for the stage before. In 1992, David Wood’s version played the Duke of York's at Christmas. An opera premiered in 2008.
But most of us will know its film adaptations. Both the 1990 version (starring Anjelica Houston) and the 2020 Anne Hathaway Amazon release tinkered with the original story. The former to an extent that Dahl called it “utterly appalling.”
It means you may be surprised by some of the darker Dahl-isms here. The musical has an 8+ warning. If your child is of a particularly sensitive disposition, you may want to add a few years on to that.
A plot reminder
In case it’s been a while, a brief plot reminder.
Ten-year old Luke (an adorable, ever-smiling Bertie Caplan) is in a car accident. Both his parents die instantly. With no close relatives, Luke is saved from a life in care by the surprise arrival of the Norwegian Gran his parents described as bonkers, and who he has never met.
Sally-Ann Triplett plays a very young looking 85-year-old witch hunter, with the voice of a Scandi noir butch lesbian and the moves of Mrs Overall.
Gran has no sooner warned Luke to be wary of women wearing wigs, gloves and pinchity shoes, than he runs into one of these witches in disguise. The shock gives Gran a heart attack and the pair are sent to convalesce in a Bournemouth hotel, also hosting an RSPCC ladies' conference. But are they really ladies?
Of course, things aren’t what they seem, and Gran and Luke set about trying to thwart the witches’ plans to turn the world’s children into mice. But not before poor Luke and his pal Bruno have themselves become murine. The mouseboys smoothly alternate from remote control toys to the boys adorned with ears, lower body, and tail. It may be old school but its effective in its simplicity.
A jolly romp
It's a jolly romp with songs playing a pivotal role in plot development. The music is eclectic, taking in big band, cheery pop, chants, and laments, often all within the same number. Loss is dealt with in the time it takes to sing a ballad. Characters exist for the space of their big song. Plot points begin and end within three minutes.
There’s little time to catch a breath. But this isn’t a show with messages to be examined in depth. If you want to debate the inferences of Dahl’s antisemitism or misogyny, read the book. This musical exists only to be looked at, not thought about.
And look at all that pink. From the décor of the Hotel Magnificent, and its staff’s outfits, to a whole chorus of dancing cakes (in a number resonant of the dancing dresses in Billy Elliot's "Expressing Yourself"), you don’t need to think when you’re faced with all this pink.
Big name casting
The main roles are written as caricature but performed with commitment.
Katherine Kingsley’s Grand High Witch has the confident glamour of a Norma Desmond. Her voice is a powerhouse. During a cleverly staged audience interaction, you sense she really REALLY does not like children. When she calls them “assholes”, the audience lap up her cruelty, though this is bound to be decried by the small but vocal X-errati.
Daniel Rigby’s tightly coiled, status-obsessed hotel manager Mr Stringer is a scene stealer. Rigby revels in his own silliness during his two laugh-out-loud numbers, filled with zippy one-liners.
Smaller roles benefit from big name casting. Ekow Quartey and Maggie Service deliver comic lines with panache as Bruno’s proudly overbearing parents. Chrissie Bhima moves with electricity as the High Witch’s assistant Melanie.
The other witches include an array of usually leading ladies including Bobbie Little (Standing at the Sky’s Edge), Zoe Birkett (X Factor, Moulin Rouge), and Julie Armstrong (Follies). So much talent means they all shine but never upstage.
There are 30 children in three rotating casts. Curiously, one in three also have three names! On press night, Caplan’s Luke was joined by Cian Eagle-Service as Bruno, and Jersey Blu Georgia as Helga.
I admit I often get itchy watching kids giving shallow, stage-school performances. Here, such tendencies are forgiven as each delivers their own showstopping solo with a confidence and charisma that merits their almost-ovations.
Nice job, done well
The second act doesn’t maintain the energy of the first, making it more like an over-extended scene than a whole act. Before the interval, time had raced by. By curtain down, it suddenly feels like the nearly three hours it has been.
There are still moments to enjoy. Designer Lizzie Clachan is let loose on the revolve, taking us from the garish glamour of the hotel’s dining room to the delicious detritus of its kitchen.
And there is magic to behold. Simple but sweet stage trickery makes Luke appear at one place, morph into mouse form, scurry off and reappear somewhere completely different. Co-illusion designers Will Houston and Chris Fisher haven’t done anything to worry Cursed Child, but it’s a nice job, done well.
However, the songs now pause, rather than progress, the plot. The kitchen scene is accompanied by a song that endlessly repeats “Soup-oopy-doop-doopy-oop”. It’s like the placeholder lyrics haven’t been replaced.
This version also sticks with the book’s original ending. I won’t give it away other than to highlight that its ending was another cause for criticism, with accusations that it made suicide aspirational. Dahl’s books may still be popular, but Dahl’s views were far from populist.
Welcome back, Christmas
The Witches may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is unarguably what we expect from the National Theatre at Christmas. Entertaining, energetic, and exciting, it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears.
Finally, we can put the disaster of Hex out of our minds as the most recent example of a Christmas show on the Southbank.
There have of course been other musical dabblings with Dahl which may be drawn for comparison. Having not seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I can’t comment.
I will say that, though it misses the Minchin magic of Matilda, this production of The Witches could still sit comfortably in the West End for a spell. Best not to think of it as a replacement daughter, but more as a new favourite nephew.
As such, The Witches should be a welcome addition to any family Christmas this year. It certainly feels like the National Theatre has said welcome back to Christmas.