Friday 24 November 2023

The Witches - Review

National Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy
Book and lyrics by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Katherine Kingsley and the Witches

Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a famously fabulous children’s tale, exploring the nightmarish conceit that witches walk among us. In a new staging, Lucy Kirkwood and Dave Malloy have taken Dahl’s wickedly inventive story and fashioned it into a musical. Fresh from the challenge of successfully directing the National’s recent production of The Crucible, a facts-based tale of fictitious witches, Lyndsey Turner now turns her hand to helming this fictional yarn about real life sorceresses.

The show follows young Luke, orphaned early on and his journey to battle a coven of everyday women who are really witches and who wish to rid the world of all children by turning them into mice. The story is Dahl at his most devilishly imaginative and yet the Kirkwood and Malloy collaboration, whilst good in parts, blunts a lot of Dahl’s pointed genius.

Turner’s cast are terrific with Sally Ann Triplett and Katherine Kingsley up against each other as Luke’s elderly Gran vs the Grand High Witch respectively. Both women are brilliant, belting their solo numbers magnificently, it’s just a shame that the lyrics are so wan and the two womens’ backstory that should explain their decades-old enmity, so poorly explained.

Both Dahl and witchcraft have been served brilliantly by musical theatre in recent decades with Tim Minchin’s Matilda and Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked both being shows with masses of heart and real humanity generated through classy melodies and perceptively penned lyrics. Kirkwood and Malloy are not in the same league - and while their visuals are imaginative, (kids will likely love the show) there’s not enough meat in this adaptation to satisfy a more discerning audience.

Aside from the two adult leads, a trio of child actors are equally brilliant (Luke played by Frankie Keita on the night of this review, alongside George Menezes Cutts and Asanda Abbie Masike in two complementing featured roles) with confident and beautifully voiced performances. Equally Stephen Mear’s choreography is as ever a treat, going so far as to include a line-up of perfectly tap dancing, mostly middle-aged witches. that would not be out of place performing Who’s That Woman from Follies.

The National is a world-class theatre with its Olivier auditorium arguably the nation’s premier stage. For a venue where technical wizardry and breathtaking design are the norm, it is a disappointment that much of the show’s visuals and magic are clunky. While the human talent in Turner’s company is unquestionably outstanding, the occasionally malfunctioning mechanical mice together with what can best be described as amateurish children’s costumes in the finale, suggest a production that has failed to reach its ambitions. Cat Beveridge directs her lavishly furnished 13-piece band with aplomb – it's just a shame that Malloy’s melodies are quickly forgettable.

There is fun to be had with The Witches – but there could have been so much more.

Runs until 27th January 2024
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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