‘High-octane, clever & extremely enjoyable’: THE WORST WITCH – Touring ★★★★

In Opera, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Scotland, Touring by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson

The joy and energy that low-budget children’s theatre often possesses can sometimes be dissipated when a comparatively large budget comes in, with a corresponding desire to please larger audiences. This is emphatically not the case with the touring production of The Worst Witch which is high-octane, clever and extremely enjoyable.

Jill Murphy’s series of children’s books have a huge following, something that can only have been helped by several adaptations – including the recent successful one on CBBC. Emma Reeves, lead writer on that series, is the adapter of this touring production from the Royal & Derngate, Northampton.

The story – largely taken from the first couple of books – deals with Mildred Hubble, an outsider from a non-magical family who ends up at a magical boarding school. This situation has led to comparisons with a later series of books about a boy wizard, but really such similarities are overplayed; Murphy and J.K. Rowling are not the first or the last to deal in such stories.

Reeves’ adaptation cleverly frames the story as a ‘play within a play’, with a slightly older Mildred presenting a dramatisation of her beginnings at Cackle’s academy with the help of students and staff. This framing device is aided by the cast milling around the auditorium before the start, engaging with the crowd; like the audience participation later on, it is comparatively low-key and well judged.

This is one of many of the things the production and director Theresa Heskins get right. Rather than trying to produce a carbon copy of the books or TV series, this makes a virtue of its theatricality. There are songs (featuring Luke Potter’s attractive music), puppetry, gymnastic broom stickery, and – as you would hope –some effective stage magic.

While a couple of the effects are decidedly low-key, there is a pleasing drive to all of it, with Beverley Norris-Edmunds’ movement design particularly impressive. What the stories do share with Harry Potter is a condemnation of prejudice and an unshakeable belief in the intrinsic goodness of most people, and this is included here, but with a commendable lightness of touch.

A scene from the Worst Witch. Pic: Manuel Harlen

The cast are uniformly good, with any possible uncertainties about older performers playing the pupils at Cackle’s soon swept away. Danielle Bird (Mildred) has the clumsy spark and the righteous fury down pat, while Rebecca Killick and Consuela Rolle (her friends Maud and Enid) are energetically played.

Rosie Abraham (the frightful snob Ethel Hallow) is suitably annoying, but her portrayal is leavened with an excellent sense of comic timing. This is shared by Polly Lister, whose portrayals of Miss Cackle and her evil twin Agatha (and sometimes both at once) is something of a tour de force. Rachel Heaton’s turn as the forbidding deputy head Miss Hardbroom is also chilling and comedic in equal parts.

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The rest of the cast – Emma Lau, Molly-Grace Cutler, Meg Forgan and Megan Leigh Mason (the last three of whom double as the musical accompaniment) are equally accomplished.

There are some occasions where it creaks a little. The commendable desire to make the story accessible to newcomers does mean that the characterisations are a little thin.

so much to enjoy

Attempts to please the parents in the audience also perhaps go a little too far. There are a couple of funny jokes at the expense of Hogwarts, and some clever in-jokes (including a couple of throwaway references guaranteed to please Dr Who nerds). However, some of the more overtly political jokes are a little clunky and not really necessary.

A scene from the Worst Witch. Pic: Manuel Harlen

However, there is so much to enjoy here that it hardly matters. The 7-plus age recommendation is certainly a good guide, as those of that age and a few years older will get the most out of it.

However, despite a couple of mildly scary moments, it is possible to imagine some younger children enjoying it. It is certainly true that audiences considerably older will appreciate a beautifully put together, thoroughly successful piece of theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday7– Sunday 12 May 2019
Daily (not Wed or Sun) at 7pm; Matinees Wed 10.30 am, Sat 2.30 pm, Sun 2.00 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Worst Witch on tour:

7 – 12 May
Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000
Book online

22 – 26 May
Birmingham
Hippodrome
0844 338 5000
Book online

28 May – 1 June
Liverpool
Playhouse
0151 709 4776
Book online

24 July – 8 Sept
London
Vaudeville Theatre
0330 333 4814

Book online

ENDS

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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.
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Thom Dibdin on FacebookThom Dibdin on RssThom Dibdin on Twitter
Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.

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