Make no mistake: this latest Birmingham Rep transfer is not a West End show. Its rickety sets alone – high on transportability, low on seamless spectacle - belie its more modest, touring production values.
But, if that can be counted a fault, it’s one that can be easily forgiven since, aside from its London address at Wyndham’s Theatre, The Witches isn’t really pitching itself as a West End show. How could it be? With top-price tickets a maximum of £25 (not to mention offers that level all seats at £15 for adults and a mere £5 for kids, its target audience), it’s not only affordable but extremely good value.
To add a little more star value, Ruby Wax has been drafted in to play the evil Grand High Witch for the London season. While Miss Motormouth appears to have grand high fun in the role, she by no means steals the show. Her gaggle of hags have been recruited from the local populace (See The Goss, 6 Jan 2005), all good-naturedly enjoying their 15 minutes of West End fame.
Elsewhere, stage veteran Dilys Laye provides able support as the kindly Grandmother and Gile Cooper, as her orphaned charge, makes a likeable boy-turned-mouse hero.
NOTE: This review dates from December 2004 and this production's original run at Birmingham Rep ahead of a UK tour and West End season. Casting does differ for London performance. Please check performance listings for details.
Roald Dahl is a master of telling remarkable children's stories, and can transport his readers to wild and wonderful places, whether it be the lair of Fantastic Mr Fox or the chocolate factory of Willy Wonka.
But his tales often have more-than-gruesome elements, including death, and with witches with rotting, balding heads, and kids who are turned into mice,
there are startling elements which should be considered if you're thinking of taking along young children.
The Witches is an action-packed show, and at one hour forty minutes, including interval, there's little opportunity for the adults to find their attention wandering, while the kids’ eyes pop out as though on stalks.
With the likes of Harry Potter conjuring up spells on screen and on the page, director Jonathan Church has enlisted the help of illusions director Paul Kieve, who was magic consultant on the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
And with adults disappearing before your eyes, children turning into mice, mice travelling unaided across the width of the vast Rep stage, and a rather nifty sequence in which two of the rascal rodents attempt to climb a staircase, it's a magical evening for the little ones, who giggled, cheered and gasped throughout.
Huge video screen projections, great work from the puppets, a really revolting Grand High Witch, played by Katerina Jugati, complete with peel-off face, rotting head and cackling laugh, and a friendly, warm and loveable grandmother in Dilys Laye, make for an entertaining live experience.
Giles Cooper is an earnest protagonist, known throughout only as Boy, teamed well with Keith Saha's greedy sidekick Bruno, and a group of Birmingham ladies provide solid support as the rest of the witches attending a hotel convention in which to plot the eradication of children.
David Wood's adaptation is short and swift, and if it obviously lacks the depth of the book, it does exactly what a stage adaptation should - convert the page into a live experience to be enjoyed. The ending is either sickly or heart-warming, depending on your point of view, but it's well-executed and isn't perhaps an entirely happy one.
But there's something about seeing kids enjoy live theatre. And that's magical in itself.