The Witches, National Theatre, review: Thigh-slapping fun

The Witches theatre show, review and star rating: ★★★★

Christmas shows are big money, especially for an allegedly cash-strapped National Theatre. So how does this year’s punt on a family friendly spectacle fare? Better than last year’s Hex is the short answer. Roald Dahl’s The Witches is particularly macabre, even for a writer whose speciality was to push the boundaries of acceptable levels of darkness for children’s storytelling.

Witches hunt children to turn them into animals and take them away from their parents. As a broad stroke, this stage adaptation definitely could feel darker. The Witches could have had gnarlier, pointed fingers, the foreboding sense of terror could have been conveyed more with heightened lighting. It just isn’t Dahl-dark.

Yet, it is exuberant. Save for a slow opening act played out on a two-dimensional set that looks like something out of a regional panto, The Witches looks sumptuous, especially the scenes set in the Hotel Excelsior. As Dahl does best, we zone in on characters. Bruno Jenkins, played with incredible energy on the night I went by George Menezes Cutts, is a thigh-slapping satire of a posh English boy. You cheer the plot on when he’s turned into a mouse.

Luke, the main protagonist, is more meek and gentle-spirited. The two boys get some incredible moments. George Menezes Cutts, who has Veruca Salt energy, belts through highly technical musical numbers as if he’s been in this industry decades not days.

The script is often funny, too, overflowing with an updated form of Dahl’s style of writing in a book by Lucy Kirkwood: chipper social observations and weird wordplay. When far too much around Christmas feels saccharine, The Witches is a welcome dollop of festive weirdness.

The Witches plays at the National Theatre until 27 January 2024

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