THE WORST WITCH
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 24th April, 2019
Long before Harry Potter emerged from his cupboard and went off to Hogwarts, Mildred Hubble attended Miss Cackle’s witching academy in a series of books by Jill Murphy. The books were adapted for television decades ago, and now they come to the stage in this brand-new version by Emma Reeves. Here we meet Mildred, her classmates and members of staff as they stage a play about Mildred’s arrival at the academy. The play-within-a-play format permits the cast to explore theatricality to represent the magic spells and uncanny events. Rather than high-tech special effects, the show depends on the creativity of the director and the physicality of the actors to pull off magical moments, like invisibility, a flying broomstick display, and a host of other spells. Dramaturgy rather than thaumaturgy.
When the director is the hugely inventive Theresa Heskins you know you’re in safe hands and there will be surprises in store. Heskins includes some of her hallmarks (if you’ve seen any of her productions at the New Vic, you’ll recognise the ‘flying’ papers) to bring the story to wonderful life. The show works on (at least) two levels, with the adventure conjured up before our very eyes, and also the joy-bringing display of theatrical invention. Reeve’s bright script updates Murphy’s novels and I revel in the sideswipes at a certain boy wizard and his school (“We don’t have an evil house; that would be silly”) Honestly, the show is an unadulterated pleasure.
Leading the company as clumsy Mildred is Danielle Bird, instantly appealing, a heroine with whom we can identify, as she attends witching school by mistake and struggles to fit in. She is supported by Rebecca Killick as bff Maud and hindered by the machinations of snobby bully Ethel (a deliciously hateful Rosie Abraham). Most amusing though – in fact, downright hilarious – is Consuela Rolle as disruptive newcomer Enid, bringing urban realness to the partay, witches.
Rachel Heaton gives a masterclass in simmering contempt as the hard-faced Miss Hardbroom – making it all the more exquisite when she experiences the effects of a hilarity potion. Molly-Grace Cutler is great fun as chanting teacher Miss Bat, also playing piano, guitar and cello for the show’s musical numbers, alongside Meg Forgan’s bass-playing Fenella and Megan Leigh Mason’s broomstick teacher/guitarist-percussionist… The band stays onstage throughout, and Luke Potter’s original score is rich with catchy tunes – the choral singing is beautiful, and solo numbers are belted out with expression, energy and humour, not least by the mighty Polly Lister, doubling as Miss Cackle and her evil twin, sometimes appearing as both characters at once. Lister gives a towering performance, larger-than-life, exuding menace and eliciting mirth. It’s a marvel to behold.
Simon Daw’s skeletal set, delineating the tottering towers of the academy, provides the perfect framework for the story. We see the outline and imagine the building, just as we see a stylised action and picture the event being depicted. Our imaginations and our intellects are engaged simultaneously, but most of all, we’re having a right good laugh.