The Lowry, Salford Quays
Looking around at the eager audience for tonight’s show, it’s evident that this isn’t really aimed at our demographic. There’s a lot of very young children in the seats and they seem to be having a whale of a time. As well they might, because this is Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a co-production between Leicester Curve and Rose Theatre, Kingston. It all begins with a jolly song, performed by the seven-strong cast, but within a few minutes, Boy (Fox Jackson-Keen, looking disturbingly like a young David Walliams) has been orphaned and gone to live with Grandma (Karen Mann) in Norway, where she tells him all about real-life witches and how to identify them.
But the educational authorities insist that Boy must return to England to continue his studies, so he and Grandma decamp to the UK and shortly afterwards, go on holiday to a hotel in Bournmouth. It is here that a convention of witches meets every year to discuss business, overseen by the Grand High Witch (a sneeringly malevolent Sarah Ingram) who has engineered a plan to turn all children in the vicinity into mice.
This is a sprightly production, that plays Dahl’s witches more for laughs than for menace. Just about everybody on stage has a go on some kind of musical instrument (Jackson-Keen even throws in a few somersaults) and the cast have quite a bit to do to flesh out a whole range of colourful characters. But there are certain elements here that don’t quite gel. As any self-respecting Dahl fan will tell you, witches are bald and hide the fact by donning elaborate wigs – so it is somewhat confusing when the clearly hirsute witches are ordered to remove their wigs… and actually put some elaborate ones on – furthermore, the play’s big climax simply needs more bodies to get across the idea that all the witches are transforming, not just their leader. (Maybe the filmed sequences used elsewhere might have been utilised to flesh out this important scene?) Having said that, there was a rather splendid ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ moment where one character sank into a tureen of soup and Bruno (Kieran Urquhart) raised the night’s biggest laughs by denying that he had turned into a mouse, despite having ears, whiskers and a long tail. ‘You are a mouse!’ screamed one little girl, delightedly. And she was clearly right on that score.
One for the youngsters then, but perhaps lacking the nuanced layers that would have kept the parents a tad more engaged. Dahl is still one of the country’s most treasured authors (mostly because he delights in putting his young protagonists through absolute hell) and he was never one to shy away from uncomfortable scenes. A pity then, that an unremittingly Dahl moment towards the play’s conclusion is somewhat neutered by a cheesy song straight afterwards, but hey, the kids aren’t complaining and this one is definitely for them.