Review: The Worst Witch (Royal and Derngate)
Jill Murphy's classic children's book about Mildred Hubble is adapted for the stage
A school of witchcraft, a new novice magician and an evil villain plotting to take over the world: no, this isn't a regional tour of Harry Potter but of his distant cousin Mildred Hubble, protagonist of Jill Murphy's book series and now star of a theatrical incarnation all of her own.
The links with the ubiquitous bespectacled magic-monger may seem unfair, given that Mildred predates Harry by at least twenty years, but they are too closely related to be ignored, not least when adapter Emma Reeves includes the odd little poke in his direction. So anyone familiar with the later wizard will feel comfortably at home in a world of Double Potions lessons, spell duels and broomstick-borne aerobatics.
However, it should also be taken into account that The Cursed Child's resources and production values probably outscale those of this comparatively modest touring show many times over. Considering the resources available to them, the team behind The Worst Witch do a pretty impressive job.
First, there's a cast of ten, covering everything from music teacher to snobby fellow pupil in a range of three-dimensional characters who are constantly more than the sum of their parts: the Royal Theatre stage may be small, but it always feels full of people and energy. Danielle Bird offers us a feisty Mildred, taking on the might of Polly Lister, whose doubling as doting headmistress Miss Cackle and her malevolent sister Agatha is one of the great delights of the evening.
They are marshalled in their complex, balletic choreography by director Theresa Heskins, who uses every theatrical device available to conjure up the trickery required by the narrative of blundering witchy ingenue (Mildred) having to save not only the school but the world from the devious machinations of Agatha Cackle. Some of these devices feel decidedly homespun (tatty old blanket as invisibility cloak, anyone?), while others, under the illusionary supervision of John Bulleid, work much more impressively. Simon Daw's set, too, deserves a special mention for flexibility and imagination.
Three of the cast multitask as musicians, and highly accomplished they are too. Molly-Grace Cutler leads the band alongside Megan Leigh Mason, both versatile instrumentalists and singers, with Meg Forgan adding a touch of cool swagger on electric bass. The songs by Luke Potter (no relation, as far as I know) don't quite deliver the punch they might, but the intent is always to entertain without interrupting the flow too much.
There are almost certainly more festive laughs to be had in the panto going on next door in the Derngate, but The Worst Witch keeps its audience engaged and attentive throughout, and its entirely female cast and heavily female creative input are careful always to be gender inclusive – something they achieve with swashbuckling ease.
Unlike, perhaps, one of Mildred's spells, this well-intentioned show is unlikely to set the place alight, but there's enough storytelling charm on offer to keep the eager youngsters spellbound for a couple of hours.