Review: The Witches

The Grand High Witch and her coven. Photographs: James Drury

People-watching before the show, it became clear there were a few oddballs among an otherwise typically chic Theatre Royal crowd.

The Witches

York Theatre Royal

Thu Sept 1-Sat Sep 3 @ 7pm; Fri & Sat matinee @ 2pm

£8-£16

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Everywhere you looked were peculiar women, all wearing the sort of gloves you might pick up at the Queen’s yard sale, with hairpieces best suited for stuffing cushions.

Tottering and tittering, they made their way into the auditorium pausing only to scowl at any child that crossed their path. Odd. Very odd.

Things only became clear as the show began. Witches walk among us, a grandmother told her grandson – wearing gloves on the hottest summer’s day to conceal their talons, and wigs to hide their hideous bald heads…

This set in train a hugely entertaining production of The Witches, perhaps Roald Dahl’s darkest tale, by the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre.

Rebekah Burland as Grandmother and Maddie Drury as Boy
Rebekah Burland as Grandmother and Maddie Drury as Boy

Combining superb performances, witty direction and ingenious staging, it hit the sweet spot where horror meets comedy. You didn’t know whether to laugh or bolt for the exit. Certainly the young boy sitting next to us confessed he was “petrified” at one point in the show, yet clearly he loved every minute of it.

The story centres on Boy who, orphaned one Christmas, moves in with his sweet and wily grandmother in Norway. When they decamp to an English seaside hotel for the sake of the old woman’s health, it soon becomes clear that this is the venue for the annual meeting of the witches – and English witches are the most vicious of all.

At the heart of the action from first till last, Boy is played with utter assurance by Maddie Drury. Growing from a grief-stricken child to a sanguine and philosophical mouse is the sort of theatrical journey that the most stage-hardened RSC star might balk at.

But Maddie has the emotional range and expressive physicality to meet the challenge. The audience is never other than convinced that this girl is a boy… or, after the witches have their way with him, a quick-thinking rodent.

Edward Hooper as Edwina, Dominic Sorrell as Bruno and Molly Levitt as the Grand High Witch
Edward Hooper as Edwina, Dominic Sorrell as Bruno and Molly Levitt as the Grand High Witch
Bruno takes a turn for the worse
Bruno takes a turn for the worse

Rebekah Burland belies her young age to become the sort of sprightly old grandmother that everyone wants: wise, twinkly and fiercely protective of her grandson.

Boy’s friend Bruno and his gluttonous ways are immediately and persistently funny, and he is played with impressive comic aptitude by Dominic Sorrell.

As for the witches, a show-stopping moment comes in the first half when they emerge seemingly from every corner of the theatre to take their place at the annual meeting. Every member of that coven was wonderfully creepy, screeching and scratching and embodying an alien otherness.

The bald truth revealed…
The bald truth revealed…
Under the witches' spell, Bruno and Boy mouse
Under the witches’ spell, Bruno and Boy mouse

At their head was the Grand High Witch. Whether in her scarlet-haired human disguise or in all her baldly hideous glory (well done the prosthetics team) Molly Levitt turns the chill factor up to eleven. Terrifying and hilarious by turns, she exudes a joyful pleasure in her demonic excesses.

Directed by Kate Veysey the story is told with terrific verve and creativity. There are so many nice touches, from the seagulls on sticks to the inventive use of silhouettes. Dominic Sales’ score, particularly his eerie flute motifs for the witches, adds to the spooky atmosphere created by Gem Greaves’ set and Alexandra Stafford’s lighting design.

And credit to Beckie May who created the wonderful mouse puppets, brought to life with dexterity by the young actors.

With slapstick chefs, wordless frogs, evil spells and a marvellously bonkers exit by the Grand High Witch, this is a wonderfully imaginative show.

All put together in just 140 hours. How did they do that? Magic, I suppose.