The Witches starts off beautifully, as the titular characters take to the stage with a song filled with very funny exposition. As more and more magical women join the chorus we learn how witches have taken roles across our society, and how a witch could be anyone you know. Oh, and in case that sounds like a positive thing, it’s really not, since every single one of them has made a child disappear, every week of every year, and they’ve been alive for a very long time.
The high quality of the song and dance numbers continues as we are introduced to young Luke (tonight played by Bertie Caplan), who is only briefly part of a loving family as the production dashes through a car crash and his strange Grandmother (Sally Ann Triplett) flying in from Norway to prevent a life in foster care. Though initially pleased, Luke clashes with his Gran as she sings about her lifelong crusade against witches, showing him a number of innocent victims she didn’t save in time, and who are now sentient food. That song is a weird delight as well, but it causes Luke to think his Gran is crazy, and so he runs away. Within 20 seconds he meets a witch, his Gran quickly saves the day and the two become best buds in under a minute, only for her to have a heart attack 30 seconds later. I’m aware that I may sound pedantic listing the amount of time of each scene, but given what happens later on it does seem rather rushed, as does Gran’s recovery and an order to head down to Bournemouth to convalesce by the sea.
At this point I thought the National might have a colossal Matilda-sized hit on its hands, but then I found myself utterly perplexed, because when they reach Bournemouth something happens that I would never have predicted: the musical becomes boring. It’s not a sudden shock to the system; the first five minutes are fine, as Luke meets a Basil Fawlty-esque hotel manager, Mr Stringer (Daniel Rigby), and Bruno (tonight Cian Eagle-Service), a chocolate obsessed child who performs an incredibly memorable song in which he discusses his love for all sugar filled snacks.
But when the witches are reintroduced all of their style and scorn mysteriously disappears. They blandly gossip about how terrifying the Grand High Witch (Katherine Kingsley) is, but when she appears it feels like she’s wandered in from a bad pantomime, and her attempt at a Marlene Dietrich impression makes her ridiculous instead of scary. Even odder is how the production then takes a misjudged swerve as it follows Mr Stringer, who is trying to deal with a mouse infestation, while the guests scream and complain, and it’s all filler, and really weak filler at that.
Having roared through the plot in the first half it feels like the play has screeched to a halt. Little is seen of Luke, Bruno and the witches for far too long, while Gran gets to tell her origin story in a song which threatens never to end. The finale isn’t terrible, and the last, rushed fifteen minutes sees the production regain some of its momentum, though it still suffers from a villain who is distinctly underwhelming, and all the songs in the second half lack invention both lyrically and musically. Running for almost three hours, an hour could easily have been cut from the second half alone, and due to the sudden decline in quality this will only be of interest to those who truly love Roald Dahl and musicals, but even then I’d only recommend the cheapest of seats.
Book and lyrics by: Lucy Kirkwood
Music and lyrics by: Dave Malloy
Directed by: Lyndsey Turner
The Witches runs until 27 January 2024. Further information and bookings can be found here.