‘The Worst Witch’ review
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Giddily metatheatrical stage outing for the original boarding school spellcaster
If Harry Potter can have a West End play, then Mildred Hubble can damn well have a West End play too.
Similarities between Jill Murphy’s witch-at-a-boarding-school protagonist (first appearance: 1974) and JK Rowling’s wizard-at-a-boarding-school protagonist (first appearance: 1997) have long been noted, and feel unavoidable when reconsidering ‘The Worst Witch’ as it makes its leap to the stage in Emma Reeves’s adaptation, originally for the Royal & Derngate, in Northampton.
Loosely adapted from the first two novels in the series, this stage version begins with titular protagonist Mildred finding that she’s out of her depth as she starts her first term at Miss Cackle's Academy. It’s a boarding school for witches where everybody has an unfeasibly fruity name, where she is given a difficult time for her lowborn non-magical origins, where she ends up supported by a crew of two dorky close friends, and where she befriends the benign head of the school but soon discovers that there is a sinister nemesis lurking somewhere in the darkness outside.
The similarities to the Potterverse are, uh, notable (and somewhat played up here). But in fact, the differences are even more so. Put simply, the Potter novels take themselves very seriously, as does the spin-off stage play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’. Murphy’s books absolutely do not, and neither does Theresa Heskins’s production, which uses a metatheatrical framing device – this is Mildred in the fifth year staging a play about her first year – to audacious effect, especially in the completely nuts second half.
Saying much more would probably spoil things a little, but it gallops along with a gloriously self-mocking brio, both reprising the original stories and telling a brand new one. The production values are high for a kids’ show, which has lots of flash and bang. But the production values of the play-within-the-play are microscopic, leading to (among other things) the delirious spectacle of Polly Lister playing Miss Cackle as Miss Cackle plays both herself and her evil sister Agatha (you have to be there really).
Lob in a tight live band, some fine individual performances – I particularly enjoyed Rosie Abraham, who came across like a more psychopathic Lucy Worsely as the bullying Ethel – and an amusingly inappropriate classic rock playlist, and you have something really magic, a third of the length of ‘The Cursed Child’ and a gazillion times funnier.