Writer: Jill Murphy
Adaptor: Emma Reeves
Director: Theresa Heskins
Reviewer: Richard Hall
At the age of fifteen, Jill Murphy began writing the first of her highly popular Worst Witch children’s books. Published a good twenty years before J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, each book in the Worst Witch series follows the fortunes of Mildred Hubble, an ordinary and somewhat accident-prone young girl, who attends Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. With her friends, Maud and Ethel, Mildred tries her very best to keep out of trouble but always falls foul of her severe form tutor, Miss Hardbroom and vindictive classmate, Ethel Hallow. Adapted from Jill Murphy’s novels by Emma Reeves, this hugely enjoyable stage adventure, places Mildred in her final year at the Academy, where once again she finds herself at loggerheads with Ethel and the unremitting Miss Hardbroom.
Having read the books avidly as a young girl and worked as a lead writer on the successful CBBC TV series, adapter Emma Reeves is clearly a Worst Witch super fan. Her love of the books, Jill Murphy’s characters and the magical world that they inhabit is clearly evident throughout. Reeves and director, Theresa Heskins, masterstroke is to set the production as a play within a play. The audience are told from the outset by Headmistress, Miss Cackle, that what they will see is a play written by Mildred Hubble, in which the Fifth year pupils and the staff will play themselves. This is an ingenious concept and in an action-packed first half, highlights include Mildred’s arrival at the Academy on a scooter, a potion making lesson that goes hilariously wrong and a spectacular flying broomstick routine, which performed at height on trapezes, shows the cast demonstrating great skill and displaying immense courage.
In the second half, the action and the pace noticeably pick up with the introduction of Miss Cackle’s nemesis, her villainous twin sister, Agatha. One of Jill Murphy’s most appealing and genuinely wicked creations, Agatha is a wonderful cocktail of pantomime demon and Fairytale Wicked Witch. In the very capable hands of the superb Polly Lister, who also plays Miss Cackle, this is a tour de force performance and a real delight to watch. With World domination in her sights Agatha befriends Ethel with the intention of taking over the Academy and very soon Mildred and her friends find themselves in mortal danger. The end though is never in doubt and true to form Mildred with the begrudging help of Ethel wins through to save the day.
A spirited cast led by Danielle Bird, in terrific form as Mildred, clearly have great fun with this blissful end of year lark and with its echoes of Mallory Towers; the show often feels as if it is a magical and fantastical reboot of Denise Deegan’s West End smash hit, Dasiy Pulls It Off. Bird receives great support from Rebecca Killick as Maud and Consuela Rolle as the sassy, streetwise Enid, a role which has clearly been updated for modern audiences. Heskins directs with precision and firm assurance and with the assistance of a magic consultant the production contains moments of breath-taking stage wizardry and sleight of hand
Running with an interval at just over two hours and with evening performances starting at 7pm, this production is ideally suited for its young audience. Fans of the Worst Witch books will love this show as will anyone who enjoys watching high quality, entertaining children’s theatre.
Runs until 30 March 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan