THE WITCHES with video design from ASH J WOODWARD opens at The National Theatre ★★★★★

The Times
5 stars out of 5
The Witches review — a dazzling show that’s even wittier than Dahl
National Theatre, Olivier, SE1
Clive Davis

So, now, Matilda has some serious competition. That’s putting it mildly. If the RSC’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale became a cash cow, the National’s musical about harpies intent on turning children into mice deserves to become an even bigger hit.
If you’re a hardcore Dahl fan, prepare to be surprised: the director, Lyndsey Turner, the composer, Dave Malloy, and the co-lyricist and scriptwriter, Lucy Kirkwood, have devised a show that is wittier and more sophisticated than the original novel.
The songs are glorious, Lizzie Clachan’s sets are sumptuous and the scattering of in-jokes beautifully handled: “Tough on mice, and tough on the causes of mice” is a line that will appeal to more than superannuated Blairites.
Perhaps the best song is, in fact, a wickedly amusing number, Wouldn’t It Be Nice? which taunts parents in the audience with daydreams of how perfect life would be if they didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to the insatiable demands of their offspring. The sleek villain-in-chief, Katherine Kingsley’s Grand High Witch, delivers the acerbic lyrics with a Garbo-esque snarl.
Kirkwood has carefully fleshed out Dahl’s slender story depicting the battle between an orphan (here named Luke, as in the film versions) and the forces of darkness. Bertie Caplan, who played the boy in tonight’s performance, was mature beyond his years; the same was true of Cian Eagle-Service as ever-hungry rich boy Bruno. His character is rounded and more sympathetic than the novel’s, and Eagle-Service also gets a spectacular number, Bruno Sweet Bruno, in which Stephen Mear, the show’s choreographer, surrounds him with a bevy of dancers straight out of a vintage RKO musical.
Luke’s wise Norwegian gran (the brilliant Sally Ann Triplett) is a much more interesting proposition as well. She’s not just a cuddly matriarch with a penchant for cigars, but a tough old boot with a back story and a touch of the Cossack. And Daniel Rigby — star of recent revival of Accidental Death of an Anarchist — steals scene after scene as the Fawlty-style manager of the Bournemouth hotel where the witches gather for their secret conference.
Would the evening benefit from being 15 or 20 minutes shorter? Yes, the second half does begin to meander, although the pace picks up again in a hotel kitchen scene that adds a fart or two to Dahl’s cheerful dollop of spit. And I’ll admit that, perhaps because of the Olivier’s treacherous acoustics, I wasn’t able to catch every syllable of the quicksilver lyrics. If I’m being ultra-critical, I’d add that the mechanised mice were a tad slow. But don’t be put off: this is a stunning achievement. As well as some terrific songs, here’s a show that doesn’t try to gloss over the issue of mortality. It stares death in the face, and laughs.
To Jan 27,

Go Back