It’s good versus evil at Wyndhams Theatre where The Grand High Witch (played by Ruby Wax) hatches a fiendish plan to turn all the children of England into mice - as an ex-teacher, I have to admit that this intriguing initiative had immediate and considerable appeal, at least fleetingly!
‘The Witches’ is based on the story of the same name by Roald Dahl, and adapted by David Wood. Like many of Dahl’s works, it’s a quirky and imaginative story that readily appeals to children (of all ages), and deals with sensitive issues that many other children’s writers tend to avoid.
The plot revolves around the seven year-old ‘Boy’ (we never learn his real name), whose parents’ die in a road accident and who is subsequently cared for by his pipe-smoking Norwegian Grandmother (Dilys Laye). Grandma pulls no punches in describing to Boy the wicked ways of witches – particularly the English ones who apparently are the nastiest and most evil around.
Returning to England to continue his schooling, Boy first encounters the English Witches whilst putting the finishing touches to his tree house and fatefully bumps into them again when they’re holding their ‘Annual General Meeting’ at the hotel where he and Grandmother are holidaying. In the ballroom of the hotel, The Grand High Witch details her plans to the other witches and demonstrates her formula for transmogrifying children into mice on the unsuspecting Bruno – a monstrous child with a voracious appetite for sweets who is easily lured into the witches’ clutches to be turned into a mouse. Overhearing the evil plans, Boy is caught by the witches (because he smells of fresh dog’s droppings) and also transformed into a mouse.
So at the start of the second act there are two of the principal characters existing at mouse-size whilst adults remain at human size resulting in some ingenious action as the Boy-mice negotiate the hotel’s interior in order to thwart the witches’ wicked plans. For example, there’s a well-crafted and amusing scene (if a little long) where the mice have to climb the hotel staircase. And when humans interact with the mice, puppetry is used with great effect and much humour.
Ruby Wax is deliciously nasty in a Cruella DeVille kind of way and Dilys Laye proves a warm-hearted and unflappable Grandmother. The two juvenile roles are both played by adults - Giles Cooper giving a particularly enthusiastic and convincing performance as Boy. And Chris Hawley and Peter Holdway provide good supporting performances in several different roles.
Basically a blend of fairy tale and panto, The Witches relies quite heavily on technical wizardry, and the overall effect is a kind of synthesis of theatre and film using back-projection. Much of this works effectively, though there was the odd glitch in scene changes, and some of the witches needed to take more care in creating their ‘baldness’ (real witches don’t have hair as everyone knows).
Principally aimed at ‘tweens’, The Witches is a short play with a running time of only 100 minutes (including an interval of 20 minutes). So for adults it may seem that there’s insufficient ‘meat’ in the plot. However, Jonathan Church’s production is generally well paced and inventive with enough surprises to keep everyone amused and entertained, if not fully engrossed.
There’s a nice twist in the final scene leading to the last line of the play that, though certainly idealistic and a little schmaltzy, provides a glimpse of Dahl’s character and a strong message for the minors in the audience.
What other critics had to say.....
MARK COOK for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Appealing production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "While it makes for jolly holiday entertainment, it lacks some of the eldritch horror of Dahl's spooky original....much as I delighted in its genial ingenuity, I wished that occasionally it had made my flesh creep in true Dahlian style." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "as the evening progressed I found myself wishing for more exciting trickery, more imaginative use of the back projections and, above all, more scary events." DOMiNIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Creepy tale for kids seems to have shrunk to rather pathetic proportions." SUSAN ELKIN for THE STAGE says, "Profound it isn’t. Polished, perky theatre The Witches certainly is."