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The Worst Witch is the best

Review – The Worst Witch, Royal Theatre Northampton (show seen, Sunday Dec 9)

THEY are pretty tough to impress, ten-year-old girls. They’ve just reached that eye-rolling, arm-folding kind of age. Gone are the days when they’d fall about at a fart noise or a silly face.

Three of them – my daughter and her two friends – were just what I needed for my reviewing team for The Worst Witch.

4_The Worst Witch_Danielle Bird-129_photo by Manuel HarlanWhile the Derngate in Northampton has the sparkly, traditional, big-bucks Peter Pan this year, the Royal next door has a real gem in the Worst Witch, and it really does sparkle.

For those unfamiliar with our plucky heroine Mildred Hubble, she was going to sorcery school before a glory-grabbing Master Potter was even a twinkle in his wizarding dad’s eye. Jill Murphy’s books were the staple for avid readers in the ’80s and she’s as popular as ever.

5_The Worst Witch_Danielle Bird_Rachel Heaton-098_photo by Manuel Harlan
Danielle Bird as Mildred and Rachel Heaton as Miss Hardbroom (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Mildred accidentally stumbles – or rather, gets magically transported – into Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. She shouldn’t be here, but somehow she can see the witches despite their invisibility spell. Mildred has to prove herself to be able to stay.

Here we find ourselves watching a play within a play. The wannabe witches are putting on a show. And this excellent device allows director Theresa Heskins to let loose with her own magic, making broomsticks fly, puppet kittens sing and strict teachers levitate.

The scene with Maud (Rebecca Killick) and Mildred (Danielle Bird) comically and skilfully hanging from broomsticks high above the stage puts Peter Pan’s wirework next door to shame. There are bangs and flashes and very funny slow-mos. It’s slick and beautiful to look at, thanks to the ever-brilliant Royal set and costume team. The mirror effect (no spoliers) and disintegrating school are clever tricks indeed.

Polly Lister centre and company-162_photo by Manuel Harlan
Polly Lister (Agatha) and cast, photo by Manuel Harlan

1_The Worst Witch_company-045_photo by Manuel HarlanIn truth the whole cast are faultless – and if you’ve read my reviews of the Royal’s Christmas shows that go back more than 20 years – you’ll know that’s not the kind of thing I say lightly.

Using every clever theatric-k in the book, the all-woman cast are even play all the music, swapping effortlessly between songs and instruments and romping though the hard-worn evil twin and mistaken identity tropes with a breaking-the-fourth-wall wink. There are even little digs at that Johnny-come-lately wizard Who Cannot Be Named.

My own little three would-be witches, Bonnie, Izzy and Alannah, were transfixed throughout – and had no problem keeping up with the story (unlike some younger kids who were kicking chairs and noisily rustling food wrappers all around us, so I’d say a mature five-year-old is probably the lowest age you should be thinking of taking along). It’s intelligent without being complicated, and still festive enough for the season.

2_The Worst Witch_Danielle Bird-137_photo by Manuel Harlan
Danielle Bird as Mildred (Photo Manuel Harlan) in Royal & Derngate’s Worst Witch

6_The Worst Witch_company-215_photo by Manuel HarlanMy fellow reviewers raved most about the schoolgirl characters of Enid (Emma Lau), Mildred, Maud and Ethel, especially Ethel, who is the stuck up mean girl of the piece, Rosie Abraham playing her with snooty self-satisfaction until her inevitable comeuppance.

It was especially thrilling then, for my usually hard-to-impress daughter to bump into the off-stage Enid, Mildred and Ethel, waiting in the queue for the loo a couple of days later. She was giddy with excitement when they said hello, even if they didn’t have their broomsticks and capes.

Forget that boy wizard, come and see a genuinely magical show this Christmas.

The Worst Witch is at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Sunday December 30. Call 01604 624811


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