Review of The Worst Witch at The Vaudeville Theatre in The West End
Theatre is such a sensory treat for all the family, and nothing beats a weekend outing to the West End to lap up the latest whimsical spectacle on offer.
The Worst Witch opened at the Vaudeville Theatre last Sunday after a successful UK run and is adapted by Emma Reeves, based on Jill Murphy’s classic novels, of course, which preceded JK Rowling and all the witch-related ilk we’ve come to love ever since. Murphy was a pioneer, and in some ways, so is this production.
I’ve yet to see magical tricks quite like the ones we witnessed in the show, so much so, Xander, 6, repeatedly enquired if what he was watching was, ‘actual real life, Mummy?’.
A clever ‘play within a play’ concept (which might well baffle the younger members of the audience) moves back and forth narratively, which is useful for those not familiar with the books (or my sons’ favourite TV series adaptation of them), as we follow the hapless, accidental student witch Mildred Hubble (played by the excellent Danielle Bird) who stumbles into Miss Cackle’s Witches Academy, harnessing her natural gifts as a magic-maker, making true friends as she goes, and ultimately saving the day, school and world from Cackle’s evil twin sister Agatha (played by the vibrant Polly Lister).
The first half was witty, layered, and entertaining. My boys were fittingly bewitched throughout. A dynamic live band on stage heightened the drama, and delighted us as they played.
It did however take a turn for the worse after intermission as it escalated into pantomime proportions as the plot became farce-like, the performances, unbelievable.
Lister is undeniably magnetic as Miss Cackle/ Agatha but in the latter role, I felt she needed stronger direction from Theresa Heskins as often lost herself in somewhat self-indulgent improv in parts. Act 2 felt as if a child had taken the reigns, demanding the cast push the boat out as far it could go, to the detriment of the story.
The darker elements towards the end, seemed out of touch with the rest, tonally too and I started to wonder how things had spiralled quite so quickly.
While the Trump jokes trumped a lot of the latter overly-long scenes, we ultimately left disappointed that the story and emotive pull of it all wasn’t quite there. It needed to be more economical and succinct, and punchier with its story beats. More heart, less special effects.
Theatre, and filmmaking (I’m a former director) fully rely on the suspension of disbelief and in the audience’s full investment in the characters and their respective journeys. It was very almost there with The Worst Witch and wasn’t the worst witch-themed production we’ve ever seen, it just didn’t possess the magic we’d so hoped for.