The Worst Witch – Review – Hull New Theatre
By James Robinson, February 2019
Long before Harry Potter cornered the market in teenage wizard-based shenanigans there was Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, following the school-days misadventures of the hapless Mildred Hubble at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches.
If you haven’t been following Mildred’s capers over the course of Murphy’s books, a movie and several TV adaptations, that doesn’t matter, because The Worst Witch stage show, as revealed early on in proceedings, has been written by Mildred, to be performed along with a handful of friends – all playing themselves – and covers her troublesome first year at the magical academy.
The play-within-a-play conceit provides plenty of opportunities for humorous asides, audience banter and breaks into fantastically catchy song-and-dance routines (music provided by an on-stage band). It also allows for the cast to indulge in all manner of ingeniously lo-fi ‘amateur’ special effects, the best of which being the witches’ familiars: pet cats that are in fact little more than woollen gloves, although woollen gloves that come convincingly to life as soon as anyone pulls one on; they even seem to jump from one character’s arms into another.
“Channelling her inner Norman Wisdom”
Late on in the production, some genuine magic is called upon, and the young witches reveal they’ve no need for such special effects, having evidently become well-practised when it comes to levitation, shooting sparks or disappearing into suitcases.
Danielle Bird is goofily endearing as Mildred Hubble, the worst witch of the title (although of course she’s anything but). She’s particularly good when it comes to the many moments of physical comedy, channelling her inner Norman Wisdom as she fumbles her every task among her usually more poised classmates, culminating in a great bit of business involving out-of-control broomsticks.
Polly Lister gets many of the best lines in a dual role as both Miss Cackle, the head of the School, and her evil twin. She even pulls off the classic Music Hall gag of facing one way and then the other as she argues with herself.
“Great night out for those kids”
The show is stolen, however, by Rosie Abraham as Mildred’s arch-enemy and teacher’s pet Ethel, who delivers her every condescending remark with an imperious glee and gets most of the biggest laughs of the night.
Emma Reeves’ irreverent and zany adaptation is packed with clever wordplay, sight gags and even the odd cheekily topical reference (including ‘snowflakes’ and a villainous attempt to ‘make witches great again’). There are even a couple of sly digs at their boy-wizard rival over at Hogwarts.
This is a great night out for those kids who like their comedy on the daft side – which, by rights should be most of them. Child audiences don’t tend to be shy when it comes to voicing their distaste at less-than-stellar entertainment, and it’s tantamount to the quality of the Worst Witch that a packed house of under tens in Hull New Theatre followed Hubble’s adventures with rapt attention.