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Review: The Worst Witch (Vaudeville Theatre)

The piece transfers to the West End after an initial tour

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Danielle Bird in The Worst Witch
© Manuel Harlan

There is no shortage of plays about witch and wizard schools in London right now, something that Emma Reeves' adaptation of The Worst Witch takes and runs (perhaps flies) with as it opens for a summer season at the Vaudeville Theatre. Based on Jill Murphy's classic series of novels about the inept witch-in-progress Mildred Hubble (Danielle Bird), the show lands in the West End following a UK tour with a well-honed cast delivering a solidly tickling two hours of magical mischief and crowd-pleasing mayhem.

Reeves' adaptation makes use of the play-within-a-play form (Brecht on broomsticks anyone?) to flash back and forwards between the present day and Mildred's first year, where she rocks up at the Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches as an unprepared tween. Without a second's wait she's already embroiled in all manner of havoc as she navigates the intricacies of fantastical flying, potion preparation and familiar training.

Theresa Haskins' production is an exercise in theatrical magic-making – there's hand-puppetry (Paschale Straiton), markedly impressive aerial work from Bird and Rebecca Killick as Maud (overseen by Vicki Amedume) and a chipper band underscoring all the major action thanks to composer Luke Potter. The two hour run-time zips along at a rocking pace, with Simon Daw's versatile climbing-frame set having the necessary bells and whistles to entertain youngsters of all ages.

Reeves gets in a few digs at its Hogwarts-occupying neighbour up the road ("Which is the evil house?" Mildred asks as she's being sorted. "We don't have an evil house dear", replies the headmistress Miss Cackle, "that would be silly.") Subtle nods to Wicked lyrics also don't go unnoticed. But even without the cheeky winks this is a comedic caper in its own right – special credit must go to Rosie Abraham as the petulant Ethel, and, while there are no owls in sight, Polly Lister has an absolute hoot playing both Cackle and her evil twin Agatha simultaneously.

The piece makes a sudden landing in panto territory during the last 10 to 15 minutes, but it's hard not to get swept up in the meta theatrical magic conjured by those on stage. A cauldron of delights perfect for a family summer show.