Jill Murphy was 15 when she invented Mildred Hubble, the clumsy girl who is deemed the “worst witch” after she arrives by accident at Miss Cackle’s Academy. Murphy’s books about Mildred have now sold more than 5m copies. One of the many joys about this new stage version for the over-sevens, created by Emma Reeves who also does the brilliant CBBC adaptation, is the way it empowers its young audience by sparking their imagination. You could do all this yourself, it seems to continually suggest. The spells, the slo-mo action sequences, the song-and-dance routines, even the handmade glove-puppet cats, beg to be recreated at home.
That’s partly because the show is framed as a school play written by Mildred and put on by the students and teachers at the academy (rated “fantastical” by Ofmag in such core subjects as charms and chanting, we’re told). It’s a clever concept because most of the audience will have firsthand experience of being involved in plays themselves, especially over the festive season.
I’m here with my eight-year-old daughter, Aggie, who loves the Worst Witch books and the TV series. She instantly identifies several characters before they’ve said a word. Rachel Heaton has “just the right hair” as stern deputy head Miss Hardbroom, her bun as tight as her smile; Danielle Bird, as Mildred, rightly looks like she’d trip over her own pigtails; Rosie Abraham has the fluttering lashes, pursed lips and disdainful demeanour of school snob Ethel Hallow; and Megan Leigh Mason is suitably dynamic as gym mistress Miss Drill, first seen doing warm-up exercises in the aisle. Aggie and I have previously seen real school kids on stage, in Matilda and School of Rock, but the students here are all played by adults channelling their inner child.
The story charts Mildred’s arrival as the only ordinary girl at the school and we see the witching world through her eyes as she makes friends with Maud (Rebecca Killick), takes her first lesson (“double potions”) and endeavours to fit in. Aggie recognises several bits from the novels and particularly loves the way Polly Lister juggles the roles of school head Miss Cackle and her scheming evil twin Agatha. In one spellbinding scene Lister effectively divides herself in two, wearing half a cardigan over a flame-coloured dress, to present a battle between the two characters, each seen in profile.
Theresa Heskins’s production has a rocking house-band on stage, featuring Meg Forgan (who is playing Drusilla) on bass, with Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler) on piano and Miss Drill on guitar, all sharing sound effects including cats’ meows that get Aggie’s approval as “really realistic”. Leigh Davies’ sound design is at its strongest when spells are cast, adding an extra oomph to the transformations, which are often realised with deft costume changes. A superb aerial sequence has Maud and Mildred dangling from trapeze-like broomsticks and clinging to a hula-hoop moon. Rosie Abraham is Aggie’s favourite in the all-female cast, along with Emma Lau, standing in as the streetwise Enid, who once burned down her own nursery.
While there’s a nice in-joke about Harry Potter (we’re told that Cackle’s has no Slytherin-style evil house), the styling of Agatha as a villain who is “taking back control” and “making witching great again” seems tired, as does a floss dance routine. After the interval, the backstage dramas take over the narrative – Aggie finds this switch “weird” – and it begins to feel a tad more panto than the first half.
Throughout, it brims with magical details, from the witchy playlist before it all starts (Love Potion No 9, Spellbound etc) to Simon Daw’s spooky set, with its broomstick forest and a school that can crack apart with the click of a finger.