“The Witches” at the Olivier, National Theatre

Mark Shenton on the South Bank
27 November 2023


Every year theatres up and down the land chase the holy grail of a successful Christmas show to both fill the coffers and build family audiences as the bedrock of their sustainability. The National Theatre’s last comparable hit in the same slot was War Horse, which opened in the autumn of 2007 and galloped its way into a global theatre hit. Their most recent effort, Hex (2021, unaccountably revived in 2022), was awful.


Richard David-Caine, Vishal Soni and Laura Medforth.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


This year the NT have turned to Roald Dahl: a musical version of his 1983 novel The Witches (with music by Dave Molloy and lyrics by Molloy and Lucy Kirkwood). It’s not the first time it’s been adapted for other mediums: it has been twice filmed (in 1990 and 2020), and turned into both a stage play (first premiered in 1992) and an opera (2008). The result isn’t as brilliant as the Tim Minchin/RSC musical of Dahl’s Matilda (which has been playing in the West End for 12 years), with its unique combination of humanity and the healing of dysfunctional childhood wounds. But neither is it as shallow as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 2013 West End Dahl musical which was all spectacle over heart, style over substance.

The team behind The Witches have found the heart as well as the art of making a show that is properly scary, but also properly delightful, in equal measure, to fill the Christmas platter full to bursting on the Olivier stage. Lindsay Turner, directing her first musical (with the effortless assistance of choreographer Stephen Mear who really knows how they work), collaborates with some of her regular theatrical partners including playwright Kirkwood and lighting designer Bruno Poet.

Jeopardy to kids lies at the centre of the story, as a young, recently orphaned boy stumbles inadvertently on the annual convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the Bournemouth hotel where he is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother, who has become his guardian. The convention turns out be the annual gathering of a coven of witches, whose masterplan is to rid the world of children entirely.

They represent a very real, but cleverly disguised, threat: fascism in M&S cardigans and handbags. And as the world swings to similar extreme threats, there’s a bigger underlying theme of the risk of dark forces and how easily they might not be noticed until it is too late.


William Skinner and Vishal Soni.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


But the show is not a heavy ride. A series of delightful production numbers keep the energy high and frequently hilarious. Molloy, previously best known for a couple of cult off-Broadway shows, one of which transferred unsuccessfully to Broadway, has provided a more mainstream score than his earlier work suggests, though there’s a jagged subversiveness to the atmosphere it creates.

But it is mainly in the outstanding performances that this show truly catches fire, particularly the rotating teams of brilliant child performers, perfectly complemented by musical theatre veteran Sally Ann Triplett as Gran, Katherine Kingsley as the Grand High Witch, and an array of scene-stealing witches that include Tiffany Graves, Zoe Birkett, Maggie Service, and Bobbie Little.

Triplett began the year in the company of Berlusconi, a fairly dreadful satirical musical at Southwark Playhouse, then took over as a wonderfully earthy Aunt Eller in the ground-breaking rediscovery of Oklahoma! in the West End, and now ends the year in triumph here: it is a true privilege to be able to watch a performer grow, glow, and blossom like this.

Lizzie Clachan, designing sets and costumes, provides an effective physical world for the show to exist in, with illusions by Chris Fisher and Will Houstoun, and video by Ash J Woodward to offer extra magical enchantment and transformations.

Could the show break out of its Christmas slot to become a year-round West End hit? Time will tell; but meanwhile, it is sure-fire thing to return next year if not.