Touring – reviewed at Curve Leicester
Back before the boy wizard, Harry Potter, took over the world there was another series of children’s books about a school for magic, featuring equally mischievous and quirky characters. Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series has spawned two television adaptations along with generations of wannabe sorceresses. I’m delighted to say that Emma Reeves’ new stage adaptation loses none of Murphy’s gleeful mayhem and enchantment in a production directed by Theresa Heskins that fizzes with female empowerment and classroom high-jinks.
Mildred Hubble (Danielle Bird) is an ordinary girl that somehow stumbles across the gathering coven of young witches about to be packed off to Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Enrolled into the school, Mildred tries to integrate with her classmates, and while her goofy charm wins over the friendship of meek but kind Maud Spellbody (Rebecca Killick), her magical ineptitude draws unwanted attention from the local bully, Ethel Hallow (Rosie Abraham), and the icy glares of the shrewd Miss Hardbroom (Rachel Heaton).
Throw in the rebellious Enid Nightshade (Consuela Rolle) and Miss Cackle’s evil twin sister, Agatha (Polly Lister), and the academy is thrown into chaos – only the sharp thinking and co-operation of the girls can save the school.
This alone is enough to have every child and adult on the edge of their seat with excitement, but Reeves throws in a curveball with a metatheatrical take on Murphy’s characters. From the start we are made aware that none of the magic we shall see on stage is real; it is merely the clever use of props and staging as directed and performed by the Cackle’s Academy schoolgirls in their first ever play, written by Mildred Hubble herself. So when supernatural imposters and genuine enchantments take over the production the audience also become embroiled in the race to rescue the night and the school.
Reeve’s text is assuredly layered and perhaps the most sophisticated ‘family’ show I’ve seen thus far. We are never patronised and the message of togetherness and friendship doesn’t feel overly sentimental – there’s plenty of gruesomeness and spite to sink our teeth into, while Mildred remains loveable and completely relatable in her clumsy awkwardness. It was also an absolute joy to see a stage populated entirely by supremely talented women, all of them acting, dancing, singing and playing a multitude of instruments with natural ease.
Among other delights, the piece features a series of quirky songs that capture the cookyness of the source material while bringing a modern edge to proceedings. Meanwhile, a spectacular aerial broomstick display seems to throw the health and safety rulebook out the window in a feat of daring gymnastic pandemonium. The Worst Witchreally does have something for everyone and, in promoting fierce aspirational women for young girls to look up to, is pretty perfect family entertainment.
The Worst Witch plays at Curve, Leicester until 24thMarch.For further UK tour details, please visit: http://www.worstwitchlive.com/
Danielle Bird and Rachel Heaton in The Worst Witch.
Credit: Manuel Harlan.