The Worst Witch:
**** 4 Stars
I have to confess my interest in this show arises from the fact that I was at school with Jill Murphy – she was in the year above me and her art work was instantly recognisable when I first saw her novels about The Worst Witch in which the clumsy Mildred Hubble is constantly being told that she is useless, ‘the worst’, and yet manages both to remain kind and somehow always save the day. Jill makes it very plain that the characters and incidents in her books are based on the staff and students of our school – and when I watched this play, I was reminded most forcibly of some of the dear nuns’ [and the pupils’] less than Christian behaviour – though I have to add that no-one flew on broomsticks and the only potions mixed were ones in chemistry class…
Welcome to the world of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches – as the banner above the stage told us, it encapsulates “fifteen centuries of witching tradition”, while the display boards each side of the stage featured praise from alumni through the ages. Some of the students are putting on a play for us, and we see backstage – it’s the usual shambles with people rushing everywhere: there’s always the irritatingly patronising one, and the one in total panic, and even the staff aren’t immune.
In the play-within-a -play we watch as clumsy Mildred Hubble finds herself among the new girls waiting to be transported to the Academy: how has she managed to bypass the protective spells that usual mean only witches can see each other? No-one knows, but Mildred can’t be left to make her way to the ‘normal’ school she was trying to reach: she must go to the Academy and there have her memory wiped despite her protests that she wouldn’t tell anyone.
When she talks to the headmistress, however, she is surprised to be admitted to the school – Miss Cackle telling her that only a witch would be able to see through the protective spells – and even more surprised to discover, when the girls are sorted into houses, that there is no evil house – “that would be very silly”. The headmistress seems rather mild and a little woolly, but her assistant Miss Hardbroom is not: overtones of Severus Snape creep into her introduction to the potions class, and I was instantly reminded of the tartars we had in our school – the only things missing from her severe black floor-length costume were the nun’s wimple and veil: the belittling sarcasm was there in spades…
The first act progressed with some catchy songs – unfortunately the words were both complex and largely inaudible – and a lot of complex choreography as the new girls wove their way through the Academy’s timetable. Mildred was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and only the interventions of her best friend Maud kept her from even greater disasters. Snotty, superior, obnoxiously precocious Ethel lost no opportunity to insult Mildred and put her down – “you’re about as magical as a cheese sandwich” – and constantly tried to get Mildred into trouble, especially when Enid Nightshade, descendent of an even more prestigious magical family than Ethel’s came to join their class. Enid instantly saw through Ethel’s motives and chose to be friends with Mildred – but wittingly or not involved Mildred in even more trouble than before.
But of course there was more to the show than the goings-on of first-year students at a magical school. In the first act Miss Cackle freely confessed to having in Evil Twin – Agatha, complete with spine-chilling scream every time she is mentioned – and in act two Mildred, so unhappy that she was running away from school, overheard Evil Agatha’s plot to take over the school [and then the world]. Fired with the noble urge to Save The Day she went back to the school – but would good prevail, or would sparkly red and gold Evil triumph???
It’s a simple tale, well told, and the audience loved it, joining in enthusiastically when asked to help, and booing and hissing the baddies’ machinations. The magical effects weren’t as elaborate or jaw-dropping as in The Cursed Child, but were nonetheless effective and at one point most impressive [how do you fit a child into a suitcase??]. The three-piece band played lustily, except when silenced by Evil Agatha, and the singing, especially in the a capella numbers, most impressive. The best thing of all for me was the way they made sure no cats were harmed in the making of the show by using simple, and simply adorable, sock puppets. Danielle Bird was a very impressively clumsy Mildred, and Rosie Abraham an exceedingly irritatingly snotty and sanctimonious Ethel. Consuela Rolle’s rebellious Enid was a fireball of energy with an incredible singing voice while Rebecca Killick’s loyal Maud showed unexpected talent on a trapeze, given her dim-but-willing-and-friendly exterior. Rachel Heaton’s tall and supercilious Miss Hardbroom made me long to find a way to bring her down a peg or several, while Polly Lister simply had a ball morphing from woolly Miss Cackle into Evil Agatha and going headlong for world domination, a lot less subtly than Grindelwald but with an equal disdain for the fate of anyone who got in her way.
The house was disappointingly small, but extremely enthusiastic: I hope numbers will improve as the week goes on. This is a delightful show which champions the underdog and gives a very clear message that you don’t have to be from a privileged background to make a difference in the world, and that kindness and looking for the good in people, even those you don’t like, is far better than sneering at and putting down those we see as different from ourselves.
The Worst Witch, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 12 May, then UK Tour continues for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/theworstwitch