This production of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ packs lots of laughs, plenty of energy and a dash of menace. It is a fast-paced piece featuring elements of farce, musical theatre and panto.
The audience is very swiftly made aware that Dahl’s characteristic dark undertones will not be watered down. This was declared in the opening musical number which made me laugh out loud as we were told to beware beware those around us. It is an opening that borders on the unhinged as the song morphs from a sweet, unassuming ditty into a chaotic melody dotted with manic cackles. It certainly makes an impression and this sudden change of atmosphere runs throughout, but don’t be put off – children will love it. For those scared as a child by the movie, allow me to re-assure you: the witches in this production are far more funny than fearsome!
Musical numbers punctuated the plot well and were a complete and joyous surprise. They were lively, well written and often very funny. There were also elements of panto (a nod to the season and not yet incongruous in early January), with audience interaction required at various points. Festive bunting and colourful Broadway- style lights (additional residuals of the Christmas season I presume) decorate the stage and above the audience, creating a pleasant, intimate setting. The set itself is simple but effective, making good use of a platform atop the ‘treehouse’ throughout. Most props are simple and a few more complex designs provide some magical moments of trickery (mice flying and witches disappearing into broth being the most memorable – but I shan’t give too much away). Perhaps most importantly, with the help of smoke, mirrors and the occasional flash-bang, all of Dahl’s imaginative transformations are there. After all, how successful could a version of ‘The Witches’ be without believable transformations? And on that note, the highly anticipated scenes featuring the witches at the all-important meeting do not disappoint
Jenna Augen proves to be that special brand of actress capable of playing a totally credible old, wise character. There’s no need for the token grey wig and stick as she embodies old Grandma in voice, posture and just enough outrageous honesty to allow her young natural appearance to be masked by the magic of great acting (with a little help from costuming). Fox Jackson Keen is likewise a very believable young boy despite being as tall as his grandma. He plays the role with innocent naivety and was clearly loved by the young audience. His gymnastic capabilities are perfectly suited for the transformation into a mouse and, along with the rest of the cast his contributions to the musical numbers are wonderful. Bruno, played by Jonny Weldon makes a wonderful counterpart and the comedy created by the two was palpably a firm favourite with the excitable little ones around me. Weldon also provides plenty of humour in his shameless gluttony, physical gags and somewhat adolescent petulance.
Sarah Ingram is a mildly vicious Grand High Witch with a powerful death stare and perfectly timed comical ticks. She achieves giggles and tense silences by turns and despite a few jarring losses of the famous vitch’s accent, she makes a splendid villain. Perhaps Ingram’s most impressive gift to this production though, is her beautiful, rafter-ringing vocals that had great impact in both the fun and fearsome songs. A real stand-out in this production is Harveen Mann, who gives each of his multiple roles an impressive layer of energy. Nicola Hawkins is most notable for her powerful operatic voice but her depictions of witches and waiters are equally impressive. Finally, Bobby Delaney is a source of many laughs while portraying a range of roles, both female and male. Guaranteeing laughs as a man in a dress, his dead-pan commentary and affected dramatics are a hit, complimented by his musical abilities.
There are a few moments when the energy dips a little but this is ultimately a great kids’ show which is as entertaining for the chaperones as it is for the kids. It’s an energetic piece of theatre with colourful costumes, trickery to stun the imaginations of little ones and a well selected running time of 80 minutes (including a 15 minute interval). The show benefits from a cast who are accomplished in musical skills, gymnastics and multi-rolling. Add to these ingredients some great comic acting and some of Roald Dahl’s most beloved and feared characters, and you have a show well worth seeing by all the family.
You can catch ‘The Witches’ at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 21 January.
By Strolling Elizabeth