The Witches review: a 'stunning' adaptation of Roald Dahl's tale

National Theatre's 'bewitching' musical is 'the Christmas show to beat'

The Witches at the National Theatre in London
'The Witches' is a production that can 'warm your heart and chill you to the bone'
(Image credit: Marc Brenner/National Theatre)

At last, "Matilda" has some "serious competition", said Clive Davis in The Times. In fact, if anything, the National Theatre's "stunning" adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Witches" – about child-hating harpies intent on turning kids into mice – "deserves to become an even bigger hit" than the RSC's long-running cash cow. Scriptwriter Lucy Kirkwood, composer Dave Malloy and director Lyndsey Turner have devised a production that is "wittier and more sophisticated" than Dahl's book. The songs are glorious and the staging is sumptuous. It's a "brilliant" creation, agreed Alice Saville in The Independent – a musical that can "warm your heart and chill you to the bone all at once". 

An evening that will delight children and grown-ups alike, this is "the Christmas show to beat", said Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. The adult cast excel, said Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times. Katherine Kingsley's Grand High Witch channels Greta Garbo; Sally Ann Triplett is a "brilliant", cigar-smoking tough old boot Gran; and Daniel Rigby gives a joyous comic turn as a hyperventilating hotelier. Miraculously, though, the show's revolving set of young stars look to be just as impressive. Malloy's music and Stephen Mear's choreography are a constant delight, and the whole thing is "altogether bewitching". 

It's certainly a charming success for the NT, but I'm afraid that I wasn't "fully bewitched", said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. My main caveat is that the story is "not massively dramatic", and the hero's psychological journey is slight. I also felt that some of Dahl's trademark weirdness was missing. "It's not that there's never a Dahl moment"; it's just that a frankly disturbing tale has been sanitised in many places. We do get a sense of Dahl's linguistic agility and riotous imagination, but the adaptation has cleaned up "his darkness", agreed Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. Still, it's a delightful production filled with "fun, wit and imagination"; and ultimately, its rollicking humour, effervescent one-liners and strong performances carry the day.

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Olivier, National Theatre, London SE1 (020-3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk). Until 27 January 2024. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. Rating ****

Stars reflect the overall quality of reviews and our own independent assessment (5 stars=don’t miss; 1 star=don’t bother)

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