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The Witches, National Theatre review - fun and lively but where's the heart? | reviews, news & interviews

The Witches, National Theatre review - fun and lively but where's the heart?

The Witches, National Theatre review - fun and lively but where's the heart?

Roald Dahl adaptation is busy to a fault but lacks emotion

A star is born: Bertie Caplan as Luke in 'The Witches'Images - Marc Brenner

The National Theatre these days seems to be going from hit-to-hit, with transfers aplenty and full houses at home. And there's every reason to expect that this fizzy adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 creep-out, The Witches, has the West End and further in its sights.

The first major musical drawn from the singular mind of Dahl since the runaway success that was (and is) Matilda in 2010, the show couples musical theatre newbies (the Olivier winning director-writer team of Lyndsey Turner and Lucy Kirkwood) with dab hands in the field like composer and co-lyricist Dave Malloy and the veteran choreographer Stephen Mear.

But for all that beguiles about the show, starting with some startlingly gifted child actors and a seasoned pro in leading lady Katherine Kingsley, this Witches' brew, to me anyway, is missing that one ingredient to push it across the finish line: a dollop or two of feeling to go with its spirit of anarchy and invention. Katherine Kingsley as the Grand High Witch at the National TheatreThat may not matter to holiday audiences wanting a good time who will delight to the goings-on at the Hotel Magnificent and the sight of mice scuttling across the Olivier stage floor: better there than in one's bedroom. And when Kingsley struts into view as the Grand High Witch (pictured above), channeling the spirit of the very Marlene Dietrich who brought this performer an Olivier nomination some years ago at the Donmar in Piaf, you feel the sprightly subversiveness that informs the Trunchbull in Matilda: a villain everyone loves to hate whose hisses are fundamentally conjoined with hurrahs. 

There's an explicit reference to Garbo from this head sorceress, not to mention a nod towards Norma Desmond, and though it takes some while before this peroxide-blonde character hoves into view, Kingsley carries all before her, inheriting the role played in the 1990 film by Anjelica Huston. (Dahl reportedly disliked Nicolas Roeg's film and wasn't around for a more recent film version, starring Anne Hathaway.)  At one point, her xenophobia puts one unexpectedly in mind of Suella Braverman, as isn't surprising given the politically aware component to both Turner and Kirkwood's lauded careers. People from abroad, we're informed, are not to be trusted, a sad assertion that is countered elsewhere by the funniest joke about the Civil Service encountered in many a year.  

If Kingsley cuts an extraordinary presence, the point of Dahl's witches is their very ordinariness: they walk amongst us, gloves covering their claws and passing their time doing yoga and pilates like some malign assemblage of ladies who lunch. Their prey are the "revolting children" (cue Matilda) who exist to be turned into mice, one of whom – the newly orphaned Luke (Bertie Caplan, one of three youngsters sharing the role) – finds an ally in his hard-bitten gran. Sally Ann Triplett tucks into that role with cigar-chomping aplomb, chatting to gnomes and explicating her unfulfilled life in a second-act solo, "When I Was Young", whose title recalls Matilda composer Tim Minchin's soaring company number, "When I Grow Up" – an achievement that finds no equivalent here. Daniel Rigby and Miracle Chance in 'The Witches' at the National Indeed, the shouty, aggressive opening number gets things off to a clamorous start, and it takes Caplan's Luke up next with "Ready to Go" to put New York name Malloy's score on a more appealing track. High points that follow include an exuberant ensemble number for a fellow youngster, the prissy Bruno (Cian Eagle-Service seizing a gift of a role) and a bravura turn for Daniel Rigby (pictured above left, with Miracle Chance) as the hotel manager, who on this evidence could front a stage musical version of The White Lotus in the Murray Bartlett role if that were ever to happen. (You heard it here first.) 

Luke and Gran get a lowkey duet grounded in mutual need, whilst events build to the inevitable (these days) call to ovation-minded arms with a rather pro forma rouser, "Get Up", that ought to be considerably cleverer than it is. At the same time, it's hard to resist a stage awash in dancing sweets and cupcakes (choreographer Mear does the honours there), and the young talent on view is genuinely top-class. One wonders in years to come whether Caplan, a standout earlier this season in Watch on the Rhine, and Eagle-Service, will develop into such gifted adults as Eleanor Worthington-Cox, late of Next to Normal, who began her career as one of the Olivier-winning Matildas. 

The show comes with a message about love and a reminder that children deserve affection, even if, poor lambs, they happen to look like mice. But the pulse of The Witches lies more in the realm of the gleefully perverse – Lizzie Clachan's nifty shape-shifting set included – than in direct appeals to the soul: a word, one feels, that doesn't come trippingly from these characters' lips. You'll have a good time at this musical, of that there is no doubt. But does it possess the subliminal inbuilt sentiment that might allow it to go the distance? This musicals-minded grownup isn't sure.

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