The Witches at The Liverpool Everyman Theatre

Posted on 16 March 2016
By Miranda Green
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Nicolai Foster’s vision of Roald Dahl’s The Witches – currently running at The Liverpool Everyman – deliciously dark tale of mice and old women is just vunderful. As the Grand High Witch herself would have put it. Had she not had her come-uppance in a bowl of soup.

A young boy (Fox Jackson-Keen) loses his parents in a car crash in Norway and is entrusted to his grandmother (Karen Mann), who is a marvellous story teller. She enthrals the boy with tales of modern day child-hating witches, their victims and, most pertinently, how to identify them.

Always women, invariably bald and be-gloved (to hide their claws) and clumping around in sensible shoes as their toeless feet make it impossible for them to wear anything more glamorous, they cannot bear the odour of child and have to hold their noses in the presence of infants.

You’d think forewarned is forearmed, wouldn’t you? But our boy manages to walk into a veritable AGM of witches whilst on holiday with his grandmother in Bournemouth and comes somewhat a cropper. He saves the day, of course, foiling their plan to turn the country’s children into mice but as with many Dahl stories, a happy ending is rather compromised.

It’s not a tale to be told with any subtlety. Crazed kid-o-phobes with evil schemes worthy of Blofeld deserve to portrayed with all the grotesque and cackling relish possible, and Sarah Ingram’s Grand High Witch, complete with German accent (as she has in the book), alternately coos and screeches at her coven of accomplices, who behave like nothing so much as the children they despise, toadying and cowering in turns in her powerhouse presence.

Misogynistic? Not from where I was sitting, although admittedly I couldn’t see everything – about which later – but the book itself was banned by some libraries for portraying women badly. Rather, I think, like many of Dahl’s children’s books, most adults are depicted as caricatures. Both Mr and Mrs Jenkins, the parents of Bruno, another child who suffers at the wands of the witches, are boorish stereotypes. In fact, Elexi Walker as Mrs Jenkins almost steals the show with her hilariously gobby impersonation of a Scousewife, chin up, arse out, finger stabbing the air. I wonder if she adapts her accent with the location?

It’s a fabulously physical production, with the cast of witches all mastering a great gag reflex whenever they come within sniffing distance of a child. Kieran Urquhart and Fox Jackson-Keen as mice tumble across the stage with lumbering enthusiasm and graceful agility, respectively.

The only complaint is with the set design. Three squares frame the stage, adding, I presume, depth and interest, but serving no structural purpose. What they also added was a large pole-sized obstruction to the view of the stage, which is a real shame, especially when with a theatre in the round like the Everyman, there shouldn’t be a bad seat in the house.

The Witches
Liverpool Everyman Theatre
15 – 19 March
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 mins,
****