One of my guiding principles as a reviewer is to try to avoid making condescending allowances for productions, of the "It's very good, considering..." type. Sometimes, however, context has an inescapable effect on one's verdict.
This revival of David Wood's stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's story about an orphaned boy's encounter with a malevolent order of witches, and how he thwarts their plan to turn all the children of Britain into mice but doesn't escape the same fate himself, began as Birmingham Rep's 2004 Christmas show. (It was an audience for The Witches that had to be evacuated from the building when Sikh protesters besieged the production of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti in the adjoining studio theatre.) And you can see how, as a Christmas show, it would work: it's not exactly cheap 'n' cheerful, but is nevertheless a world away from hi-tech spectacular; it combines fun and a hint of darkness, and the humour has quotas for both children and grown-ups; it doesn't tax young attention spans by going on too long.
Relocate the same production to a competitive West End in a blustery March, though, and the picture looks very different. Sets that shake at robust physical activity do not look endearing; a handful of brief, sometimes blurry video projections look like a quick cop-out of dealing with the problem of scale after Boy is mousified. Paul Kieve's transformation illusions look workmanlike, uninspired compared to much of his other work. In the end, top ticket prices of £25 for a show that lasts less than an hour and three-quarters including interval do not look like comparatively good West End value; they look like cheek. Not even drafting in a star name in the form of Ruby Wax as the Grand High Witch (at most performances) puts a healthier complexion on matters.
In some ways, this is all rather a pity. Wax gives a solid performance, Dilys Laye enjoys her stint as Grandmama and Isabel Ford turns in a clutch of enjoyable cameos. Director Jonathan Church has an eye for modestly amusing bits of business. The youngsters in the press-night audience responded warmly (although, bizarrely, younger children seemed far outnumbered by teens). It's very good, considering. But, considering other things, still not good enough.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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