Life & Culture

The Witches review: Child killers hidden among us in Dahl’s dark family show

Bertie Caplan is superb in a production that pleasingly provides a platform for young Jewish talent in a musical based on famous children's book writer's story


The Witches
National Theatre | ★★★★✩

No Roald Dahl story is safe from being turned into a musical. But how do you follow in the footsteps of the Royal Shakespeare Production’s triumphant Matilda if you are the nation’s other great theatre institution?

How do you avoid looking like your next big idea was someone else’s? Throwing talent at the show helps.

This one boasts acclaimed playwright Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica) as its book writer; Lyndsey Turner (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet) as its director, the award-laden American Dave Molloy for its composer and the choreographer is Stephen Mear, the chap whose tap- dancing steps propelled chimney sweep Bert around all three sides of a proscenium arch in the stage version of Mary Poppins. But we digress.

Unlike the National’s previous hugely anticipated family show Hex, which was stunning to look at at but felt as if it was desperate to impress, this one is confidently anchored by Dahl’s much imitated but rarely matched storytelling.

The idea of witches being child killers embedded in society and disguised as ordinary women is as potent here as it is on the page.

This coven-cum-chorus line of respectable ladies who are dressed in reassuring pastel colours and living under cover in reputable jobs morph into grotesque, pitiless murderers at the mere sight of a child on its own.

These moments of transition are genuinely scary as the reassuring smiles of dinner ladies, air stewardesses, teachers and street cleaners contort into grimaces.

None gurn better than Chrissie Bhima as the witch whose human name is Melanie and who goes from sweetness and light to stiff-limbed, sinew stretching psychopath in a blink.

The comedic antidote to all this shrill sadism arrives when the action switches to the Hotel Magnificent in Bournemouth where ten-year-old orphan Luke (I’ll get to who plays him) and his cigar-chomping, witch-hunting Norwegian 85-year-old grandmother (Sally Ann Triplett who has the air of a dog of war) are booked in for some convalescence following Gran’s heart attack.

The place is also hosting a witches’ convention disguised as an NSPCC meeting. The evening is elevated still further by, for my money, the best comedy actor currently on stage, Daniel Rigby. In a recent revival of Accidental Death Of An Anarchist he was — and I don’t use this word lightly — brilliant.

As the Magnificent’s hapless hotel manager Mr Stringer, he is the epitome of snobbish middle management to which Rigby adds a dose of Basil Fawlty-like manic anger.

But as is always the case with Dahl on stage it is the child performances that must define a production.

And here Bertie Caplan as Luke is simply stunning.

On press night he was superbly supported by Cian Eagle-Service playing candy junkie Bruno, who stops the first act with the song Bruno Sweet Bruno, and also by Jersey Blu Georgia, whom the witches turn into a gnome. Her voice is so miraculous it fills the Olivier stage. But in the lead role, it’s Caplan — son of the actor Ben — who is the revelation.

It's not only that his voice is as true as the truest bell. It’s that his acting has none of the slight stiffness that most child performers have to outgrow.

And I admit to a soupçon of satisfaction that a show based on Dahl, who was more than dodgy in his opinions about Jews, serves as showcase for an emerging Jewish talent.

For quibbles, you could argue that Molloy’s good score is not as great as Tim Minchin’s for Matilda.

And with that show I don’t remember the focus and energy levels flagging late in the second act as they do here.

But that aside brace yourself for the best family show since the National’s production of His Dark Materials.

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