'The Witches' review – this gobsmackingly great adaptation is the best new musical of the year

Read our five-star review of The Witches, by Dave Malloy and Lucy Kirkwood, now in performances at the National Theatre to 27 January.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“This is not a fairy tale.” So begins Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy’s gobsmackingly great musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which takes the premise seriously – while perfectly balancing the scares with vivid, heart-warming and properly funny theatre. It’s the best Dahl adaptation since Matilda, and the best new musical I’ve seen this year, hands down.

The story begins with 10-year-old Luke losing his parents in a car crash, and going to live with his marvellously eccentric, witch-hunting Norwegian grandmother. Sally Ann Triplett is having a ball with the role: she chomps cigars, wields a crossbow, and plays poker with a garden gnome.

She also warns Luke that witches live among us – as we see in the wicked opening number. In fact, they slyly employ the tropes of unthreatening womanhood as cover: yoga, baking, and knitting their own cardigans. But their dearest wish is to “squish and squiddle” little children.

There’s wonderful detail, and gags galore, in every corner of this enchanting show. When Luke shares his yearning to take risks, children pop up with casts and crutches, or wearing traffic cones. Later on, we see kids turned into a frozen painting and a Henry Hoover. Even the doctor who treats Gran is a hoot, thanks to Irvine Iqbal and the peerless writing.

But the most inspired set-piece comes with a trip to a twee hotel in Bournemouth, introduced with an hysterical number led by Daniel Rigby’s manic manager, Mr Stringer. Between high kicks, splits and pasted-on grins, he harries his staff (“Pull yourself together, Denise, or go back to the civil service!”), and switches between contempt for the scruffy-looking Gran and simpering toadying towards an ostentatiously wealthy family.

Ekow Quartey and Maggie Service are a scream as snobby, boastful parents (their son Bruno was named “one of the top five children in Oxfordshire”), and I saw the miniature superstar Cian Eagle-Service as Bruno, who can charm sweets out of any woman. A fabulous vaudeville number features tap-dancing cupcakes, candy floss waved like feathered fans, and Eagle-Service brandishing a glittery top hat. Stephen Mear’s choreography throughout is magnificent.

The witches switch brilliantly between comic and chilling, particularly Katherine Kingsley’s egotistical Nordic ice queen of a Grand High Witch. She gets a sultry cabaret number seducing us into the idea of a world without children; we also see her in a diva turban, reluctantly taking selfies with fans. But the whole coven is magnificent: each could easily lead their own show, so together they’re a jaw-dropping force.

Kirkwood adds new backstory to make the fight between Gran and the witches more potent, and Triplett nails a soulful ballad as Gran musters her courage – as does Luke, in tandem. I saw the excellent Bertie Caplan as the latter; with his mop of curls and pure voice, he’s the musical incarnation of a Quentin Blake illustration. The buoyant anthem “Get Up”, which fuels him, is the take-home earworm from Malloy’s effectively eclectic score.

Lyndsey Turner’s constantly inventive production cleverly handles Luke’s transformation into a mouse, aided by Chris Fisher and Will Houstoun’s delightful illusions. Lizzie Clachan’s vibrant design, incorporating animation, contrasts the pink hotel interiors with dark, supernatural tree tendrils that encroach on our human world.

There are some pointed lessons in here: the other guests wrongly mistreat Gran just because she’s different (and foreign). Kirkwood also reverses some of Dahl’s own dubious messaging – yes, the witches are bald, but so is the heroic Gran. The show bravely keeps Dahl’s ending, but makes it a life-affirming battle cry. Seize the moment – and seize tickets to this total triumph of a show.

The Witches is at the National Theatre through 27 January. Book The Witches tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Witches (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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