Of all of Roald Dahl’s books, The Witches has got to be one of the scariest for a young child to even entertain. The idea of an adult woman hating children and wanting to hurt them deeply is a lot to take in when you believe the entire world revolves around your mother and her unspeakable, unconditional love for you.
Written in 1983, The Witches was later adapted into one of the most terrifying films of my childhood. Both are full of nightmarish imagery: visions that we are going to be taken from the warm comfort of the family fold; ordinary, everyday women transforming into despicable looking demons; a child’s realisation that yes, they do absolutely stink and need to take regular baths; and Anjelica Huston, who was made for the role of the evil Grand High Witch. It’s a very dark story that plagues the deepest recesses of both a child and adult’s imagination.
In David Wood’s adaptation we are given an extremely family-led production. The forefront of the seating area invites parents and their children to sit ont he ground – much like a jamboree – and the cast regularly include them, asking to wave, cheer and give them high-fives as they run up the aisles. There are references to how revolting kids are (“smell like dog’s droppings”) that naturally are a hit, and Fox Jackson-Keen’s Boy showcases his pet mice and their circus act, whilst also performing some gymnastics of his own, which are met with awed appreciation.
Director Nikolai Foster has done a sterling job in creating something with meaning and depth. It is thrust upon the audience that we must care for nature and for animals because hey, that slug you almost stood on is probably your friend Bethany. We are told that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you, which really is one of the most profound things you can ever tell your children. Songs too play an influential role in relaying messages to us and it is great to see the cast playing their own instruments.
The production is very playful, very mobile and low-key. Isla Shaw hasn’t created anything wondrous in the set but it is certainly enough to ensure the young audience are not bombarded with too much. The front door of the hotel can be moved around and entered, with a centre-piece and stairs acting as tree-house and hotel room among other things. A rear-stage screen is a fantastic addition with arty looking indicators when the location changes. Props are made larger for the mice with Kieran Urquhart’s Bruno appearing to actually eat a big inflatable banana.
The cast are relaxed, talented performers who excel with the often very dry script. Not much in The Witches is taken too seriously, especially the meeting in the hotel that is too silly and brief – though the murder of one who dares answer back is deliciously shocking.
Karen Mann’s Grandma has beautiful chemistry with grandson Jackson-Keen. Their relationship creates the foundation of the show and ensures some heart and relatability runs consistently throughout. As the Grand High Witch, Sarah Ingram certainly has the arrogant air of the Queen Bee but there is nothing even remotely scary about her. I felt this is simply because of the target audience and, if needed, she could give much more. Urquhart is innocently cocky and Elexi Walker as his mother is completely hilarious in an OTT performance.
The message The Witches conveys is an important one and overall it is a well-done production. The second act is much too brief with absolutely no fear of threat from the witches, which really doesn’t bode well for an adult audience. It would have been great to see this done much, much darker as it has all the potential in the world to give you awful insomnia.
The Witches is playing at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 10 April. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre website. Photo: Catherine Ashmore