REVIEW: The Witches, The Bear Pit Theatre

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Niki Baldwin and Carol Roache in The Witches

The Bear Pit Theatre Company can always be relied upon to offer family festive fun without the usual ham and cheese of a panto. Following on from their fabulously uplifting Toad of Toad Hall last Christmas, this year they present a truly delicious production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, adapted for the stage by David Wood and directed by David Mears,

It tells the story of the orphaned Boy, who is brought up by his loving Norweigan Grandmother and who verses him in the way of witches. These children-hating witches are all around and are easy to spot: they wear gloves to cover their gnarly nails, wigs to cover their bald pates (which are covered with unsightly sores as a result of wig rash) and have blue spit. Grandmother and Boy happen to stay in a coastal hotel during the witches’ convention and attempt to thwart a plot to turn all the world’s children into mice.

Those of us who have seen the well-loved 1990 film version of Dahl’s book, starring Anjelica Houston and Rowan Atkinson, came to this a bit baffled, wondering how on earth a stage production could compete with the screen — such as the turning of kids into small furry mammals or a witch into a smouldering pile of bones, and the action- packed heroics of Boy as a mouse as he capers about.

I needn’t have worried: this production is full of cunning stagecraft of the first order. Video, puppetry, explosions (which at one point cause the theatre’s fire alarms to go off, to great hilarity) and clever hustle and bustle of the actors make magic happen before your very eyes.

Witches’ hats must be doffed to this fine troupe of actors and their director. Pamela Hickson as the gentle but wily Grandmother is just brilliant; young actors Christopher Kingdom as Boy and Laura Hayward as Bruna both give assured performances; the gruesome and cackling witches, led by the brilliantly diva-ish Grand High Witch, Carol Roache, and comically dumb Witch One, Niki Baldwin, are a riotous, villainous triumph. There were also fine comic turns from hotel manager Thomas Hodge — whose brief camp pose as James Bond secured the biggest laugh on the night — and chefs Lucy Parrott and Nathan Brown.

The script perhaps lacks the verbal vim of Dahl’s original writing, and the play seemed to be a tad sluggish in the first half. But by the second half this production kicked into gear, whizzpopping along at a speedy pace and successfully transporting the happy audience into another world: almost as if a Quentin Blake cartoon had come marvellously to life.

And we all say scrumdiddlyumptious to that.

On Thursday and Friday (14th and 15th December) the Bear Pit hosts did We Mention the Free Mince Pies? When the Company’s finest performers comics and singers for a light-hearted look at Christmas.

Your hosts for the evening are Graham Robson and Philip Hickson who will as usual, raid the Christmas Cracker jokes for your delectation. Jessica Friend as Musical Director has moulded the Bear Pit Christmas singers into an enthusiastic, tuneful choir who can’t wait to entertain you.

With your free mince pie, a festive drink and general Christmas cheer, what could possibly go wrong?

See www.thebearpit.org.uk for tickets and details.