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.
Charming! Danielle Bird and Rachel Heaton
Leave a comment | tags: Consuela Rolle, Danielle Bird, Emma Reeves, Jill Murphy, Polly Lister, Rachel Heaton, Rebecca Killick, review, Rosie Abraham, Simon Daw, The Worst Witch, Theresa Heskins | posted in Review, Theatre Review
PETER PAN IN SCARLET
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016
Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic. The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery. The world has changed. It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too. The First World War has changed and tainted things forever. It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.
And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton. 1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments. Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.
The plot is action-packed. Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares. The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair. In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again. A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it. There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis. Clothes make Pan.
Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy. He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes. Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality. Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be. Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell. The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.
The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen. There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic. Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry. The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection. The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material. We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it. But then, Peter Pan was new once too.
Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Pollard, Daniella Beattie, Geraldine McCaughrean, Isaac Stanmore, J M Barrie, James Atherton, James Earl-Davis, Jonathan Charles, Mei Mac, Michael Hugo, Natasha Lewis, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Perry Moore, Peter Pan In Scarlet, Rebecca Killick, review, SUzanne Ahmet, Theresa Heskins | posted in Theatre Review