We are a long way from Halloween but one little corner of Norwich is full of witches, potions, familiars and spells this week. Casting their magic over Norwich Theatre Royal a ten-strong all female cast present a delightful and action packed dramatisation of the popular characters from Jill Murphy’s ‘Worst Witch’ books and TV spinoff .
These tales mix schoolgirl capers with all kinds of trickery which are brought to life with a wide range of theatrical and even circus skills by the hard-working cast. Hapless Mildred Hubble (Danielle Bird) is waiting for her first day at a new school but gets caught up with the girls travelling to Ada Cackle’s Academy of Witchcraft and making friends quickly with Maud (Rebecca Killick) soon decides that she rather likes learning to be a witch, even though she is hopelessly clumsy and accident prone. Snooty Ethel (Rosie Abraham) is not impressed with this interloper, and tries to turn the other girls against her. But Miss Cackle (Polly Lister) and even the stern deputy Miss Hardbroom (Rachel Heaton) take the new girl in and set about transforming her into a proper witch. Meanwhile Maud and Mildred’s friendship is strained by the arrival of feisty newcomer Enid (Consuela Rolle) who brings a cauldron full of attitude to the school.
The adventures come one after another in this fast paced family show which went down well with the audience enjoying a high point of their Easter holiday break. The children in the audience were all well behaved but my companion had to give a few hard Paddington stares to the adults who would not stop their rattling of sweet bags, sometimes to the point where it was hard to tell cackling witches from crackling sweet wrappers.
There is a lot of action and Mildred in particular throws herself around the stage quite alarmingly, as well as indulging in some scary broomstick flying. The need for physical fitness and skills is perhaps why these schoolgirl witches are not played by age-matched youngsters, which in turn means that it takes a little while to get used to the rather low pitch of some of the screams of girlish glee from the stage. Mildred sounds like a girl who started early on the Woodbines behind the broomstick cupboard but Danielle Bird soon compensates for this with some very adeptly performed teenage clumsiness as she falls off scooters, broomsticks while generally cannoning around the vertiginous set. I hope she has strong wrists!
Rosie Abraham as Ethel looks like the youngest cast member and gives an enjoyable performance as the posh know-it-all girl who considers herself better than all the others, but who eventually earns the redemption of friendship from her peers. Consuela Rolle is outstanding as the sassy Enid stirring up trouble wherever she goes.
Polly Lister doubles up as both the rather dotty Miss Cackle and her evil twin sister Agatha, a showy vamp who is determined to steal the Academy from her sister. The director Theresa Heskins has a lot of fun creating dialogue between the two sisters with just the one actress, and this becomes a theme of comedic daftness in itself in Act Two.
One of the joys of Jill Murphy’s books is that she creates a world of female heroes and villains where you simply do not miss the males. This show passes the Bechdel Test throughout and offers young audience members a wide range of characters to emulate and find their favourites from.
The lively music in the show is all performed live on stage by cast members with three of the ten cast playing a variety of instruments and occasionally nipping out from the band area when their own characters have work to do.
This show is great fun throughout and perfect to take your youngsters to during the long Easter break. The show will give happy memories and lots to talk about. I have a few minor niggles – I think the show needs to be clearer from the start that it expects the audience to get involved, sometimes the cast did not seem confident that they would get the responses they appeared to seek. They could even risk a bit more topical humour – there are occasional references to the lunacy of the Trump dialectic and one or two local namechecks, but a few more would hook the audience in closer to the cast.
Tonight’s audience was mostly youngsters and their parents, but the twenty- and thirty-somethings who fondly remember the original TV series and books will love the stage version. You would need a heart of stone not to leave the theatre grinning from ear to ear from these cheerful adventures that we first enjoyed long before Harry Potter came along to add to the magic.
© Julian Swainson 2019
The Worst Witch, Tuesday 16-Saturday 20 April at 7pm, and Wed, Thur and Sat matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £10-£23.50. Discounts for Friends, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk