DramaReviewSouth West

The Worst Witch – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: Emma Reeves (based on novel by Jill Murphy)

Director: Theresa Heskins

Composer: Luke Potter

Reviewer: Helen Tope 

Goofy, clumsy and a spectacular failure, Mildred Hubble is the ultimate thinking girl’s heroine. Since the publication of Jill Murphy’s novel The Worst Witch in 1974, Hubble has entertained generations of children.

A newly-inducted member of Miss Cackle’s Academy, Mildred’s dubious grasp of even the most basic spells, not to mention a highly questionable broom technique, makes her a lead character we can all identify with.

Buddying up with scholarly Maud, together they navigate the halls of the Academy. Taught by the formidable (and forbidding) Miss Hardbroom, Mildred’s other adversary is a pupil called Ethel. The youngest of the prestigious Hallow family, Ethel is snide, bitter and an unbearable know-it-all.

In adapting the novel for the stage, director Theresa Heskins’ challenge was in how to refresh a story so well known. The answer? A play within a play format. Mildred is in charge of staging the story of The Worst Witch – we see the characters jump up on stage, adjust their costumes and ready themselves for the opening scene.

Working song, dance and acrobatics together, The Worst Witch inventively tells the story using basic props and an audience’s imagination. But as we return from the interval, the cast realise that they too have been played. Not everyone on stage is who she appears to be.

This production keeps enough of the classic tale to keep older fans engaged, balanced with a youthful energy that pulls out the fun in Jill Murphy’s text. When Hardbroom (Rachel Heaton) is extolling the virtues of discipline and denial, we need a little anarchy to set things right. A highly skilled ensemble cast make the most of every moment. No sight gag is too silly to be thoroughly milked (you will leave wanting your own sock kitten).

The characters are pitched perfectly too. Every story needs a good villain, and Ethel (a scene-stealing performance from Rosie Abraham) is just that. With her insistence on pureblood witches making her an interesting precursor to Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy, luckily for us Ethel is far quicker to realise that loyalty and friendship trump any bloodline.

While The Worst Witch is a play with songs, it is the quality of the music that delivers the magic. Performed live, the songs are gloriously too-cool-for-school. Composed by Luke Potter, the music – punky and full of attitude – is the perfect accompaniment to the play. The songs are so good, it begs the question of why this production wasn’t given the big-budget musical treatment.

The songs, including The Witching Kind, lend body to a story most of the audience already knows. While a sparse, but multi-tasking set, works for the structure of the play, the decision to build atmosphere through song is nothing short of inspired.

The Worst Witch stays mostly true to its Seventies roots. Indeed, the themes of individuality and rebellion, coupled with drum and bass, anchors the play partly in Murphy’s fictional world, and in the Seventies landscape from which Mildred emerged.

The only problem The Worst Witch has – and it’s hell of a problem to have – is that the production doesn’t think big enough. The material could take an adaptation on a grand scale. The Worst Witch has music to rival any modern musical – and there’s a few who couldn’t match it – with Jill Murphy’s series of novels, there’s ample room to develop this idea even further. Far from disappointing, The Worst Witch just leaves you wanting more.

Runs until Saturday 13 April 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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