Yesterday, we were invited to see The Witches at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-Upon-Thames.
Like many Roald Dahl novels, The Witches is beautifully melodramatic and cries out to be adapted for the stage. This Rose Theatre/Curve Theatre Leicester co-production, directed by Nikolai Foster and fresh from a tour of the UK, didn’t disappoint.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of The Witches, it goes something like this: Boy’s parents are killed in a tragic accident. Boy (Fox Jackson-Keene) goes to live with Grandma (Karen Mann), who warns him that witches do exist, are harder to spot than you might think, and are very, very dangerous. Grandma falls dangerously ill; she and Boy travel to Bournemouth, so that she can recuperate in some fresh sea air. Boy and Grandma accidentally run into a convention of English witches, who are plotting a dastardly deed to eliminate all children….
The Rose/Curve production managed to capture all the grotesque energy of the Dahl novel. The Witches were introduced as a lewd herd of mitherly crones, with Sioned Saunders topping the bill for filthy, poo-sniffing, bottom-scratching magnificence.
But the Rose/Curve show went out on a limb and added buckets of high camp. Rather than exposing their hairless scalps, these witches wore dramatic neon frightwigs to cover up their baldness. And the Grand High Witch – Sarah Ingram – was played with concentration camp viciousness as a Germanic, more buxom (and even nastier) Cruella de Ville.
I took a risk with this performance. The Witches is advertised as being suitable for children aged seven and over, or over five if the children aren’t too easily scared. I knew my six year-old son would withstand the terrors of the show, but my four year-old daughter is easily spooked. After I showed her the trailer, though, she was eager to see the whole thing, so I decided to take her.
The Witches is played in two halves. The first section is more frightening than the second, with loud bangs, suspenseful acting and plenty of malevolence. But once she’d got over her initial fear of the weird-looking witches, my daughter enjoyed the show. Fox Jackson-Keene’s acrobatics as Boy, and Elexi Walker as Frog (both did impressive mid-air leaps), brightened the mood in between scary scenes. There was some light-hearted audience interaction, and a funny sequence where Boy introduces William, his pet mouse. So it wasn’t fear and terror all the way through, and my daughter was even brave enough to climb down from her Dad’s lap and dance in the aisles at the final number.
Some of the special effects were a bit repetitive – smoke appeared, and the lights went dead, every time someone was transformed into an animal on stage, or obliterated by the nasty witches. But Isla Shaw’s set was cleverly enhanced by the use of lighting and projection. Holiday-camp scenes appeared on the back of the stage when the drama moved to Bournemouth, and the Grand High Witch became even more terrifying when her head appeared behind the Boy and his Grandma (Karen Mann), at least twenty times larger than life. Dougal Irvine’s score managed to be both menacing and jolly, just on the right side of burlesque.
We attended on press night, and there were several adults in the audience without children, who seemed to be having a good time. If The Witches was one of your favourites as a child, you’d love this stage show; it’s clever and subtle enough to play to adults as well as children. My only warning to those thinking of taking children is, if you’re not sure whether or not your child will be too frightened, don’t sit in the pit. Those freakish witches had a nasty habit of jumping off the stage and coming a little too close to the theatregoers at the front. I think that might have even sent me edging towards the door….
The Witches is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-Upon-Thames until Sunday 10 April. Tickets are £24, £20, £17, £16, £13 and £8, depending on seating. We were given a family ticket for the purpose of this review.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.