MORE than 20 years before a certain boy wizard caught his first train to boarding school, Jill Murphy’s canon of Worst Witch books were enchanting children with the story of Mildred Hubble and her exploits at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. This rollicking stage version, reaching the end of a UK tour ahead of a transfer to London’s West End, makes occasional comic mileage in mentioning the originality of the formula, whilst never over-egging the point.
Pop-up banners on the stage set us up for a promotional event selling the Academy to a new generation of students. In Emma Reeves’s adaptation, directed by Theresa Heskins, the staff and pupils are here to present a play about life at the school, and many of the original characters are here onstage. It’s all done to music, with a band cleverly housed in a niche in Simon Daw’s inventively playful set.
The set is deserving of mention, as it’s deceptively ambitious for a touring show. Three storeys of the Academy appear almost drawn in outline like a cartoon, but as the entire structure moves closer to the audience it reveals itself as a very three-dimensional backdrop, and it has a few tricks in store.
On and around this space the story unfolds at a pace, from Mildred’s first and accidental arrival at Miss Cackle’s through to her acceptance as one of the gang. There are too many splendid performances to list them all, but the central pairing of Danielle Bird and Rosie Abraham as the sparring students Mildred and Ethel is a great example of the strong casting in the show.
Miss Cackle herself, along with her evil twin Agatha, are played with unreserved relish by the exceptional Polly Lister, for one scene donning a double costume to deliver the classic comedy set piece of a player having an argument with herself. Alongside Miss Cackle is Rachel Heaton as the imperious Miss Hardbroom. Tightly buttoned and hair drawn back in a severe bun, she struts the stage with a louring presence that could curdle the blood.
Along with the musical numbers that lift the show’s energy comes some lively choreography, and a centrepiece of the stage action is an aerial performance in which flying broomsticks almost become a trapeze act. This affords yet another glorious opportunity to lampoon ‘that other’ magical franchise.
Those of us a bit long in the tooth to be familiar with the stories just need to take a cue from the children in the audience. A little girl sitting in the row next to me was gleefully explaining exactly who everyone was to a bewildered parent, and could have been hired to do audio description for the show.
This is gleefully accessible theatre, striking a bull’s-eye with its target audience whilst still being thoroughly entertaining for their adult hangers-on. Ending its tour this week in Liverpool on the Playhouse stage, The Worst Witch takes a brief holiday before opening for a 9 week run at London’s Vaudeville Theatre on 24th July.