The Witches musical at the National Theatre – review

Daniel Rigby & Katherine Kingsley reach comedy heights in musical spectacular


Daniel Rigby and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s hard not to compare the National Theatre’s The Witches with the

West End hit Matilda. Both originated as stories by Road Dahl, both have been turned into much-loved films before being transformed into musical spectaculars.

Good as this well-produced show is, The Witches never quite reaches the heights of its RSC rival. But it does offer an entertaining evening, especially if you want to take your older children to a theatrical show more inventive, and less cliched, than a pantomime.

National Theatre favourite Lucy Kirkwood has done a good job with the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, although it does take a while to get going. It could have gained from being half an hour shorter than its current two-and-a-half hours plus interval.

Still, her lyrics, jointly credited with the composer Dave Malloy, are sharp and witty. The latter clearly knows his way round musicals and has written varied hummable tunes appropriate to the different situations.

The plot goes back to the original story, losing the happier ending of the 1990 film. To remind you, a child discovers that a group of witches is meeting in the hotel at which he’s staying and they are planning to turn every child into a mouse. With the aid of his Gran, he sets out to thwart them.

The cast of The Witches

Director Lyndsey Turner was previously at the National with a very different show about witches. Following the tense drama of The Crucible,  she shows she is also a champion of fast-moving musical comedy. Supported by set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan, Ms Turner takes full advantage of the large cast, and the Olivier revolve.

My only reservation about Ms Clachan’s contribution is the surround of dark thorns which provide a contrast to the brightly colourful sets and costumes (and fill in the enormous Olivier space) but seem like too heavy handed a reminder that the world is a dark place.

Spectacular routines

There’s a Broadway chorus style number Magnificent, which introduces Mr Stringer, a character much expanded from the novel and played by Daniel Rigby as a frantic Basil Fawlty-style hotel manager, obsequious to his rich guests and rude to the less well off.

By the time there is an outbreak of mice in the building, Mr Stringer becomes hysterical and leads possibly the stand-out routine of the show- Out! Out! Out! It’s a dizzying number in which he and his staff prance round the revolve going from room to room looking for mice, placating complaining guests along the way. Daniel Rigby‘s contortions of face and body combined with a strangulated voice surely make him the finest physical comedy actor currently on the London stage.

Katherine Kingsley and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Grand High Witch is a superb villain, and Katherine Kingsley extracts every drop of evil from her cauldron. She is imperiously haughty, she snarls at everyone including the audience, and sings an hilarious song Wouldn’t It Be Nice, about how marvellous it would be for parents if they didn’t have children dominating their lives.

Both Daniel Rigby and Katherine Kingsley are a gift wrapped in a bowto this musical. They take the foundations of words, music and situation, and build upon them until the comedy reaches summits of laughter.

The good adult, so to speak, is the boy’s cantankerous elderly gran, beautifully played for laughs and pathos by Sally Anne Triplett. She sings a gorgeous song with her grandson Luke called Heartbeat Duet.

Let’s go back to the comparison with Matilda. Where the earlier musical scores is that its child hero survives intact to the end whereas Luke is turned into a mouse halfway through. At that point, his character alternates between being a mechanical mouse and a  boy in a costume. I know we often need to use our imagination in theatre, but this particular concept failed to fire mine.

One other caveat. Although this is a family show, it is not for young children. It’s not only the complexities of the plot and the darkness of some of the events (Luke’s parents die early on), the language and length are too much for anyone under about ten years old.

Still, for the rest, children and adults alike, there’s plenty of spectacle and comedy in this musical

The Witches performed at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27 January 2024.

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven