Roald Dahl’s controversial novel The Witches has previously been adapted into an audio reading, a film, a stage play, a radio drama, another film, and now, at long last, a stage musical!
The Witches follows a young boy, Luke, and his eccentric grandmother, who come head to head with a coven of witches, headed by the Grand High Witch, at a glamorous English hotel.
Contrary to popular belief, witches are not hat-wearing, green-faced hags who fly on broomsticks. Rather, witches look just like ordinary women, as we are told in the glorious opening number, ‘A Note About Witches’.
Witches wear wigs to cover their rotten scalps, gloves to cover their hideous fingers and claws, comfortable shoes to protect their squared toes – and the Grand High Witch wears a mask to cover her goblin-like face. The story is, essentially, a warning never to trust strangers – because even the friendly old woman down the lane could be out to get you.
The story has been criticised for sexism; it is very much of its time so this adaptation attempts to modernise it, especially with its badass grandmother.
The musical follows the novel more closely than the film, which Dahl himself hated, especially because the filmmakers scrapped his bittersweet ending in favour of a traditional, fairytale-like happy ending. However, the musical also does its own thing, with fresh interpretations of the iconic characters and more context and backstory.
For example, whilst the novel and films reveal that the grandmother and the Grand High Witch have met before, resulting in the grandmother losing her thumb, they do not tell us how. All these years later, we have finally been given an explanation, in the form of a song – and it is satisfying.
The script (Lucy Kirkwood) also addresses things that have changed in the many years since the original story. When the excited witches visit the Grand High Witch in her room, they pose for selfies with her. Earlier, when she lambasts the witches for only offing one child a week, a ballsy witch vents that the current circumstances make it difficult: parents today are very protective, and children tend to be kept indoors. Also – gloves have not been in fashion since the early 1980s!
The witches’ meeting has been reimagined, for the original configuration (the witches seated in rows whilst the Grand High Witch talks to them from the stage) would look bland and boring on a theatre stage. Instead, the witches sit on chairs at either side of the Grand High Witch, tilted to face the audience, whilst the Grand High Witch performs for the actual audience, as if we, too, are witches. The witches jump out of their seats and move around, even approaching the Grand High Witch, increasing the drama and fun.
Indeed, whilst the film is dull and bleak, everything has been heightened for the musical. It is camp, cooky and colourful, with the Hotel Magnificent embodying 50 shades of pink. It is very much a child-friendly production, with some pantomime-like humour, but enough darkness for grown-ups to enjoy (not the mention the nostalgia).
Whilst modern musicals suffer from small budgets, often using digital design in place of physical sets, this is a no-expenses-spared production, with around two dozen scene changes, countless set pieces, and gorgeous costumes.
The set design (Lizzie Clachan) is sublime, with a stage revolve that is used wonderfully. Sometimes, it is used for scene changes, with characters and sets being spun off stage as new sets and characters are brought on. It is used to excellent effect when we move from the hotel dining room to the kitchen, as Luke, now a mouse, attempts to administer the witches with a fatal dose of Formula 86, giving them a taste of their own medicine (literally) and using the Grand High Witch’s magic against her.
The show’s ‘magic’ is wonderful. Chris Fisher and Will Houstoun deserve great praise for their illusion design and direction. However, the magic is also enhanced by Stephen Mear’s choreography, Bruno Poet’s gorgeous lighting design, Ash J Woodward’s sublime video design, and Lizzie Clachan’s set and costume design. Mear and the designers work in tandem, under the direction of Lyndsey Turner, to create a whimsical world of magic and mayhem.
Characters appear out of boxes and tables before ducking down and vanishing. It’s unclear how they fit in the objects or how they descend under the stage. Characters turn into mice, surrounded by smoke, and the Grand High Witch peals off her human mask to reveal her real face. Of course, in actuality, she places a monstrous mask over her face – and, unfortunately on the night I attended, Katherine Kingsley’s mask briefly pealed off, but she quickly stuck it back to her face and carried on like a pro.
Kingsley had big shoes to fill, playing a role previously played by Hollywood icons Anjelica Huston and Anne Hathaway. She edged closer to the latter’s comedically maniacal portrayal, rather than the former’s terrifying portrayal that most are familiar with, but she succeeded in making the role her own. Her ability to be both glamorous and grotesque deserves great praise. A theatre icon, I previously saw her play Dusty Springfield – but this musical has her singing a very different song!
West End darling Sally Ann Triplett plays the grandmother, a wise old woman, with extra eccentricity. It’s a pantomime-like portrayal but the show relies on caricatures and heightened drama to create its surreal world.
Daniel Rigby is hilarious as hotel manager Mr Stringer, probably even better than Rowan Atkinson was. He is pretentious and snooty but ultimately loveable.
The supporting cast is spectacular. Irvine Iqbal is incredible, especially in his role as the head chef, whilst Zoe Birkett slays as Pippa, one of the more prominent witches. Mr and Mrs Jenkins (Ekow Quartey and Maggie Service, respectively) have great chemistry and perfectly embody the tennis-playing bourgeoise. Luke’s parents, Richard David-Caine and Laura Medforth are delightful, with David-Caine also playing the sous chef to comedic effect.
The show is stolen, however, by its cast of children. The child actors portray both children and children who have been turned into living objects by the witches,
Bruno, previously portrayed as an Augustus Gloop-like character, is now a real charmer, though equally as spoilt. His solo number is spectacular. The protagonist, Luke, is incredibly loveable. On Friday night, they were portrayed by Cian Eagle-Service and Bertie Caplan, respectively. They are, without a doubt, two of the best child actors that I have ever seen onstage.
The score is pleasant, with some standout numbers, especially the aforementioned opening number, an ensemble-led piece which sees the witches tell us about themselves, and Bruno’s bonanza of a number.
Some of the songs, however, are forgettable. Others verge on saccharine, including ‘Get Up’, the only track to have been released so far – ironic because it sounds and feels like it comes from a different musical entirely. Whilst it is performed wonderfully by the child cast, it is let down by its generic sound and empty, pseudo-inspiring lyrics.
The run time seems a bit long for a musical aimed at children. That said, I never lost interest, but I’m a huge fan of the movie and was incredibly intrigued by all the changes, especially in the second act. Other people might lose focus.
After the lacklustre response to their previous holiday production, Hex, the National Theatre has returned to form with The Witches, another camp, comedic, child-friendly horror. The score could be stronger but there are enough majestic numbers to render the forgettable ones, well, forgotten!
Whether or not The Witches can rival the gargantuan success of fellow Roald Dahl musical Matilda, only time will tell, but this production deserves another life. It is wonderfully nostalgic but also fresh and original. It is fun for all the family or even childless millennials and zoomers who grew up with the book and/or the film (indeed, it was my favourite film as a kid). But beware of any friendly-looking women in the audience – they just might be a witch!
The Witches runs at the National Theatre in London until January 27, 2024.