Passing the luxuriously apparelled new Everyman Theatre, the sight of Quentin Blake’s artwork popping off its columns greeted one like an old friend. David Wood’s adaption of The Witches advertised the imagination Roald Dahl’s quaint stories and Blake’s iconic sketches embodied. Roald Dahl himself once said, “a little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest man,” “nonsense” whole-heartedly embraced by the public, who attended in fancy dress. The Everyman geared the play towards children, evidenced by the children scampering through the bar, absorbed in their in-programme treasure hunts. However, I couldn’t help but look at their website advertising The Witches with this sentence; “The Witches contains stupendously scary bits […] recommended for children aged seven plus and their brave grown-ups.” Nikoli Foster’s production promised entertainment for all ages.
The audience varied from school parties to grown nostalgia-seekers like myself. Once the children rested their broomsticks (seriously, the theatre sold broomsticks) and I poised my pen and notepad, a sense of anticipation from all age groups was palpable. The stage was something staggering. The natural and supernatural clashed beautifully whilst defining the play’s main spaces. The Boy’s tree house was imaginatively mashed with an intricate spiral staircase, fitting Grandma’s house and the Hotel Magnificent later on. Aesthetically, the mysticism created by the set alone heightened the anticipation further.
Sitting in the second row, I observed how naked and open the seating was. No neat dividing line between the stage and audience existed; everything blended neatly into one. Whilst including the audience on a personal level, this ominously foreboded the unease promised on the website, especially when a couple arrived and sat next to me, uttering the famous last words; “I hope there’s no audience participation.”
Musical instruments littering the stage mildly ruined the mystique. The antique piano fit the aesthetic, however multiple scattered drum kits and guitars broke the immersion. The modern jarred too much with the mystical at this juncture and some of the magic was lost for me. Two ginormous lighting columns looked as if they’d gone missing from Liverpool One. The lighting purposes they served during the play, whilst effective, could have been achieved through the lighting they already had in the theatre and the colossal columns obstructed unfortunate audience members who did not have front and centre seats.
Signifying the show would be aimed towards everyone, the childish prologue song made clear the play’s self-awareness, having the wit and cheek to deliver a phones-and-camera warning in the first verse. When the minor key hit everything changed, the darkness promised on the website was unleashed. The music suited the play’s conventions very well, but felt awkward and unfitting at tense moments. Boy should be petrified in fear at the witches’ grand meeting instead of strumming his guitar. The Hotel Magnificent was wholeheartedly done justice to, with its glitzy, jazzy theme.
The acting overall was solid, sticking to Brechtian, melodramatic conventions. Fox Jackson-Keen conveyed the childish optimism of Boy fitting Dahl’s presentation of a boy finding optimism in his darkest moments. Jackson-Keen’s athletics impressed after his transformation, as the ringleader of his mouse circus they detracted from his intricate puppetry and funny Fantastic Mr.Fox references. Despite looking far older than Boy did in my mind, the bizarre feeling I felt on first seeing him melted and his performance became enjoyable.
Jackson-Keen’s fear emerged in the far more real threats of the story. The horrifically staged car crash was incredibly poignant. I’m not normally a fan of blackouts and blackout transitions due to their awkwardness and failed discretion; however the production utilised them well, truly setting the bar for how blackout transitions ought to be done, slick and professionally. Red spotlights and excellent puppetry recreated the tension of the Boy’s first witch encounter. These emphases on the real life dangers were very powerful. Special effects came in handily and effectively to demonstrate this.
Heightening the performance was the well-balanced chemistry between Boy and Grandma (Karen Mann). Clearly they share a deep love and despite the childish, playful discussion of witches at the beginning, beautifully bonded as the story progressed. Jackson-Keen’s optimism and Mann’s pride in her grandson came through perfectly, touching the audience and filling them with as much hope as they emitted on stage.
The witches themselves were overly comical. Instead of the frightening, bald monsters Dahl wrote about and Foster seemingly promised we received buffoons with gigantic wigs. Multi-roling and costume were effectively used, adding a psychedelic-punk (and occasionally stubbled) surrealism to the witches horrific nature, yet they looked and acted less threateningly than in the book.
Blake’s sketches scared me as a child, but their on stage manifestation was tame. The inevitable audience participation came about and they stalked into the front two rows to frighten the children, their fear factor picked up, only to relapse into doddering silliness, ruining the effect. Despite my hipster “I came to watch my childhood destroyed” attitude, this presentation of the witches went down well with the children in the audience, who laughed along with the witches’ shrill voices and clown-like behaviour. Not only did it fit the children’s tastes, it fit the art and conventions of a Dahl story well. The vibrancy and gusto the witches possessed, whilst disappointingly tame, delivered Dahl’s intent perfectly, proving entertaining for adults fully embracing Dahl’s sense of “nonsense” unlike soulless critics. (What can I say, I had a job to do.)
What irked me most was The Grand High Witch (Sarah Ingram) was not as sinister as I’d hoped. If the other witches were silly but The Grand High Witch menacing, I may have forgiven this portrayal. But The Grand High Witch was predominantly as comical as her lackeys, tempting Bruno (Kieran Urquhart) with Wonka Bars. A video of her was projected onto the back of the stage, representing her talking to her reflection. Ominously looming silently whilst Boy and beautifully bullish and blunt Bruno discuss escape plans, she was domineering and fear-inducing. Then she opened her mouth. This comment may sound harsh but the faux-German accent, whilst entertaining children, grated amongst adults. Her accent caused her diction to slip making song lyrics and some lines unrecognisable. Moments such as frying the witch at the conference caused her comedic act to turn brutal when she kicked the witch’s remains around in a carefree manner, highlighting her menacing side. Aptly applied body horror and illusion throughout surrounded The Grand High Witch with the promised danger I hoped for.
Mr and Mrs Jenkins (Justin Wilman and Elexi Walker) shared admirable chemistry. Their over-the-top-ness was a pleasure to watch and made up for the majority of the belly laughs from all ages. In my opinion the show was worth watching just for those two. Having characters that don’t develop can make performing the same thing over and over tiring, but both actors tirelessly assaulted the audience with a boastful arrogance that seemed to be turned on and off as if from a faucet.
The show’s final scene was perfectly done, touching adults and children’s hearts visibly. The bittersweet ending was a heart-warming bow wrapping up everything neatly and highlighting how much time we have in the world and what we do with our time that makes our existences valuable. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, as long as someone loves you.”
The Witches was highly entertaining and wholesome. Returned to my childhood; everyone received a warming accompanying message. The acting was excellent, with chemistry between Boy and Grandma and Mr and Mrs Jenkins notably standing out as stellar performances. Along with its impressive use of special effects and stage magic, this play went down a treat with all age groups.
Overall the Everyman hosted a wonderful evening for adults and children alike. It only gives me hope when I see We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is on at The Playhouse this summer. The Witches I think set the bar for stage adaptions of children’s literature in Liverpool and I’m glad they didn’t destroy my childhood.