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This review starts with a confession – I may be the worst critic to review ‘The Worst Witch’. Let me explain. My children were not quite the right age to read the original books by Jill Murphy and my grandson, being only two weeks old, hasn’t had time to dip into them what with all that feeding and stuff. So I came to the Arts Theatre as a complete beginner not knowing anything about the characters or even the existence of Miss Cackle’s Academy for young witches. Thus my thoughts on last night’s opening of the adaptation by Emma Reeves can only stem from following Mildred Hubble’s misadventures on stage. I begin this piece with this mea culpa only because I am a bit baffled by it all.

For those, like me, who have not read the books (lots over four decades) the premise is simple: Mildred has arrived at the witches’ school by accident and is treated as an outsider by the other gals who beneath their traditional gymslips are proper little sorcererettes. One, Ethel, is also a proper little madam; haughty, snobby and very superior as she comes from an aristocratic line of witches. The setting is very familiar – from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the yarns of Angela Brazil: outsider joins privileged boarding school only to be rejected by class or, in this case, absence of magical powers. Of course J.K. tapped into the same rich stream with the Harry Potter franchise and I am sure there is much more to come. Posh boarding schools still fire up the British imagination.

The evening began with the staff and pupils from Miss Cackle’s very own ‘Hogwarts’ mingling with the young audience. Some of the smaller children seemed a little nervous of Miss Hardbroom wafting round the auditorium dressed like Cruella de Vil. As the play got under way (rather slowly as it happens) the characters broke the fourth wall to introduce themselves and to set out the structure of the play. This was going to be a play-within-a-play produced by the Cackle Academy’s staff and pupils based on the story of Mildred’s arrival and subsequent adventures.  A lot of dialogue was set up from the opening to explain this conceit but then as the pace began to sag, we got a rousing song to get us all in the mood. The production uses an on-stage rock band and a string of catchy original songs in the pop/soul mould making this ‘The Worst Witch – the Musical’.

I didn’t think the youngsters in the audience were especially enamoured of these musical interruptions (in the same way that there’s a lot of fidgeting in the singing bits of a panto) but maybe I’m wrong. In between the songs there was lots of visual invention: suitably lit spooky sets, a very impressive destruction of the Academy (later magically restored), a magic mirror routine and a circus-like scene involving trapezes doubling up as broomsticks. Danielle Bird was suitably gymnastic in the part of Mildred, ‘the eponymous worst witch. There was a real tour de (evil) force by Polly Lister who played both twin sisters – the good Miss Cackle and the very bad Agatha whose attempts to grab power over the school on her way to world domination provides the driving narrative of the play. As the wicked doppelganger she was very loud and very scary – I saw some of the smaller kids in the stalls cling on to their mothers (I could only grip my cardboard coffee cup for security). Rosie Abraham stole the show as Ethel the snooty witch manqué and there was impressive support from all the cast including those who doubled up as school characters (though not the male drummer).

To be frank I found the first 90 minutes (of a long show lasting around two hours) all a bit perplexing. There was a lot going on with spells, flashes, bangs, songs, acrobatics and more but at the expense of a clear narrative thrust. Thus we never really get to know Mildred or feel that she is a clear outsider. She is hardly ever called a ‘worst witch’ and seems incurably happy. She also makes chums awfully quickly and though we feel sorry for her for being wrongly accused of a serious breach of the witch’s code, we never get behind the mask of jollity. Only with the arrival of the harridan Agatha does the plot really engage though in a rather frightening way for little ones – in one scene a gal is actually killed by the witch’s spell – but only to be resurrected by the forces of good later you will be relieved to hear. The script seemed to plod its way through the action and there were very few laughs to be enjoyed. The audience of mainly youngsters and their teachers or parents, were strangely quiet throughout the long evening. I think the lesson here is clear: no amount of loud singing or stage business (however impressive) can replace good old-fashioned storytelling  driven by a connection with the protagonists.

But I have to confess that I could be wrong.