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REVIEW: It’s Witchcraft!

Muddy is spellbound by The Worst Witch at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre until Saturday, April 27.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan.

Harry Potter fans will love the in-jokes in Emma Reeves’ witty, inventive adaptation of Jill Murphy’s best-selling 1974 book about an accident-prone girl who mistakenly ends up in an academy for young witches – cue kitten glove puppets, an aerial broomstick display…and an evil twin sister!

Before the lights go down in the main auditorium Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones fills the air as he sings Witchcraft and as if by magic members of the all-female cast appear front of stage. Look one way and you might catch a stare from Rachel Heaton’s rather severe Miss Hardbroom in all-black attire, hair pulled back into a tight bun (think a female Snape). In the thick of it is Mildred Hubble clumsily clambering over the seats attempting to get to the stage, causing general mayhem and hysteric laughter. Mildred eventually whizzes on the main stage not by broomstick but by scooter and mistakenly queues up for the wrong secondary school – Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Gentle grey-bobbed, cardy-wearing Miss Cackle, who likes nothing more than a cup of tea and a bun, happily takes her in, despite Mildred’s doubts that she’ll be “as magical as a cheese sandwich”.

Like JK Rowling’s boy wizard, Mildred Hubble has grown up a “normal” child or as her scheming rival Ethel Hallow calls her, “a pleb”. The story cleverly unfolds as a play-within-a-play – a school production starring pupils and staff at the academy. Murphy’s Mildred Hubble books have sold more than 5m copies across the world and Emma also worked lead writer on CBBC’s award-winning The Worst Witch TV series in 2017, as well as The Story of Tracy Beaker, The Dumping Ground, Young Dracula, and Hetty Feather.

Theresa Heskins’s production for children aged seven and above feels a bit like School of Rock meets Harry Potter and a more wholesome St Trinian’s. Simon Daw’s spooky multi-level set silhouettes against a dark sky and gigantic moon, and three musicians, including electric guitar-toting Meg Forgan, provide a lively soundtrack.

The actors do a fantastic job of mimicking children – there’s great energy. Danielle Bird’s disheveled heroine Mildred has just right of charm, mischievousness and a great voice. Rosie Abraham is excellent as the affected Ethel, who comes from a long line of witches. “Arrogant, callous and rotten – you have the potential to become a fine witch!” Miss Hardbroom tells her. Rebecca Killick is Mildred’s studious best-friend Maud and Consuela Rolle plays riotous rich girl Enid, who’s been expelled from 17 schools – she can sing too – and hilariously hails her fellow pupils with the greeting: “What’s up, Witches?” Obviously, that one’s aimed at the adults!

The action-packed second half really steps up a notch with the introduction of Miss Cackle’s levitating evil twin Agatha who wants to take over the school from her “meek and mild” sis – stealing all the best lines as she does it… “No more Mrs Nice Witch,” she says whipping off her cloak to reveal a red sequin number and black bob like a thwarted rock star. “I don’t do double acts anymore.” From then on, your feet barely touch the ground – and neither do hers. Polly Lister gives a blinding performance. At one point she even plays both sisters at once with a clever costume split in two halves.  Slo-mo scenes, special effects, lightning bolts and a thrilling ‘spell-off’ between Enid and Ethel ensue. Enchanting fun.

The Worst Witch runs at the Belgrade Theatre until Sat April 27. Tickets are available to book now on Tel: 024 7655 3055.

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