The Witches: discovering Roald Dahl’s winning formula

Claire Allfree
Monday, February 19, 2024

In his stories, Roald Dahl’s young protagonists must use bravery and imagination to outsmart insufferable adults. These same qualities could be said to be essential for any theatrical creative team attempting to capture the author’s singularly unique and anarchic spirit

Could there be a more frightening moment in children’s literature than the one in Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches in which it is suggested to the reader that any woman in the world could potentially be a witch in disguise? And not just any old witch, but the sort of witch who hates children so much she turns them into mice? ‘She might even be your lovely school teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment,’ says our narrator, a seven-year-old boy. ‘Look carefully at that teacher… I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one.’ ‘That bit is so scary!’ squeal the actresses Maggie Service and Bobbie Little. ‘Dahl is so good at creating those everyday moments when we are unaware danger might be upon us.’

I’ve met Service and Little, and fellow actress Zoe Birkett – all three of whom play a witch in the National Theatre’s winter family musical adaptation of Dahl’s children’s horror classic – during a break in rehearsals a month before the show opens for previews. We are secreted away in the press room, far away from the rehearsal space, but I’m assured that almost every room throughout the building is home to frenetic activity: dedicated specialist teams are hard at work, creating wigs, gloves (the witches have to wear two pairs – green gloves to convey that their bodies are, in this production, covered in slime rather than skin, and a second pair on top to disguise this fact), magical illusions, and an awful lot of robot mice. ‘The mice all have tiny remote control cameras on their heads,’ says Birkett – a seasoned West End Musical Theatre performer – in delight. ‘It’s so that we witches avoid stepping on them. There is a team of people backstage whose job it is during the show to control them. It’s next-level technology. The current production of Sunset Boulevard [currently playing at the Savoy] uses handheld cameras, but I’ve never seen anything like this.’

The Witches

Company in rehearsal for The Witches at the National Theatre (photo: Marc Brenner)

If everything goes to plan, nor will the audiences at the National Theatre. The Witches, adapted by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Lyndsey Turner and with a score and lyrics by the American composer Dave Malloy, is one of the biggest shows the National has ever mounted. It’s been in development for nine years. The 54-strong cast includes a revolving set of 30 children. It uses more props than any show in the theatre’s history. It has illusions aplenty – and let’s not forget those robot mice. In short, it’s the outgoing artistic director Rufus Norris’s answer to War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, both huge hits for the theatre under previous incumbents.

‘Dahl’s stories are beloved far and wide, and the National Theatre makes work that speaks to, and of, our nation,’ says Jenny Worton, artistic director of The Roald Dahl Story Company, which owns the rights to Dahl’s archive and is co-producing The Witches. ‘In terms of scale, reach and representation, Dahl and the National Theatre are a great match.’

All the same, Lizzie Clachan’s set has apparently been designed to emulate a proscenium arch, evidence perhaps of the National’s hope that the musical might transfer to the West End. ‘We couldn’t possibly say,’ says Service with a smile, but anyone could be forgiven for suspecting such a move might be part of the plan. After all, the RSC’s musical adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda is now in its 13th year, 12 of them at the Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden from where it shows no sign of budging. That show, with a book by Dennis Kelly, propelled the career of Bertie Carvel – who was so mesmerically repulsive in the role of Miss Trunchbull (the sadistic headteacher who persecutes the intellectually far superior Matilda with particular enthusiasm), I still can’t think of it without shivers. Today, Tim Minchin’s lyrics and music are known practically off by heart by almost every seven year old in the country. The musical was recently turned into an unflinching film, starring Emma Thompson, by its original director Matthew Warchus. When it comes to Musical Theatre, not to mention film and TV, Dahl is big business.

And it’s easy to see why. ‘Dahl’s stories deal with parents and children at war, to the extent it’s as though they are different species,’ says Warchus. ‘His books contain a very simple idea of justice, a child’s view of justice.’

‘The child protagonist is always up against the forces of the adult world,’ adds Worton. ‘They are David versus Goliath stories, where children must use extraordinary bravery and imagination to overcome authority figures we are taught to believe should have moral integrity. Whilst the plots involve great plans and capers, at their heart the stories are fundamentally about social conflict: acts of rebellion against a malevolent force. And the stage does social conflict like no other form.’

The Witches similarly pits a child against a hostile adult world, in this instance a young boy, Luke, who like so many of Dahl’s young protagonists doesn’t live with his parents, who died in a car accident, but with his Norwegian grandmother. Throughout his childhood she has thrilled him with stories of the murderous witches who conceal themselves throughout the world in female form, although they can be detected by virtue of their bald scalps, which they tuck away beneath wigs, and their claws, hidden beneath gloves. On holiday with his grandmother at a beachside hotel, the boy discovers that the hotel is unwittingly hosting the annual meeting of witches, in which The Grand High Witch (Katherine Kingsley in this production) reveals her plan to turn every child in England into a mouse by injecting sweets with her Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker. He is spotted, caught, and force-fed the mixture, turning into a mouse yet retaining his human personality. He manages to escape and, reunited with his grandmother, the pair hatch a plan to rid the world of witches forever.

There’s no doubt that Dahl’s world is a frightening one. Appalling things happen to repulsive adults – think of The Twits, who end their days glued upside down to the floor of their living room – but bad things happen to children, too. Not just the unpleasant ones, such as the greedy Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who is sucked up a pipe into the fudge room, but the innocent ones: poor Bruce in Matilda, forced by Miss Trunchbull to eat an entire chocolate cake; the boy in The Witches, turned into a mouse. ‘The darkness, or the intensity, in Dahl stems from the fact some stories don’t always have a happy ending,’ says Warchus. ‘Children love that. But the message is also that the children in the books survive the brutality. They are scared, but they are also rebellious. If the aim of the adults in Dahl’s world is to break a child’s spirit, then what they realise is that it’s impossible to do so.’

It’s not just the fearlessness of Dahl’s antic plots that make them such richly dramatic source material. His language is so pungent, so gleeful, so full of mischief and nonsense, that the wordplay feels almost physical. It has an anarchy about it that in the instance of Matilda beautifully suited the mischievous spirit of Minchin, a comedian and composer known for his linguistic dexterity. When we meet, Birkett, Service and Little have yet to hear Malloy’s completed score for The Witches but they can tell me that in some instances they sing in an invented language, as befits Dahl’s habit of freshly minting new words as he went along. And what they also know is that the score for their songs contains tritones. A tritone can be described as a mode or interval made up of three tones which when used in the scale of B, without getting too technical, creates an interval so dissonant it was once regarded as ‘diabolus in musica’, ie, the devil in music and thus avoided as much as possible by superstitious 18th-century composers. ‘If you were caught using it back then, you’d be killed,’ says Service. ‘You would literally be regarded as summoning the devil.’

If this, then, is an instance of a composer bottling the subversive spirit of Dahl and decanting from it something new, then Dahl’s novels for children don’t always translate so effortlessly into the language of Musical Theatre. Like any page-to-stage translation, the trick is to capture the spirit of the original while also finding a fresh theatrical vocabulary. One of the criticisms levied against Sam Mendes’s 2013 production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on a book by David Greig and which ran at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 2017, was that it failed to achieve its own imagined world; another that it lacked dramatic impetus. That said, another production by James Brining has been touring the UK since February. Meanwhile Sam Holcroft’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, with a jaunty score by Arthur Darvill [Curly in the UK premiere of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!] and which went on a short tour after premiering at Nuffield Theatre Southampton in 2016, perhaps ought to have become a classic of the genre – revived each year at Christmas in the way of the Julia Donaldson classics such as The Gruffalo and Stick Man – but hasn’t.

One perhaps overlooked reason for this, as Warchus points out, is that Dahl and the Musical Theatre form aren’t quite the effortless, straightforward pairing they initially appear. ‘The musical is a very sentimental art form,’ he says. ‘And I don’t think you can say that about Roald Dahl.’ He argues that, while Matilda the Musical owes a debt to Oliver!, and sits in the same tradition as musicals such as Billy Elliot and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, on another level it sits entirely by itself. ‘It’s very different to Annie, for example. It finds a very different way of telling that sort of story.

‘One loose rule of the Musical Theatre genre is that the lead character invariably has an ‘I want’ song, which tends to establish the expected narrative arc. But our Matilda doesn’t have an ‘I want’ song. She’s very self-sufficient. She doesn’t actually want anything. What she deserves is better parents, but that’s a different thing. Her big song is ‘Naughty’, which is not a song about hope but which instead offers a practical guide to survival. In many respects the rule-breaking ethos of the book is inculcated within Tim and Dennis’s musical.’

You could argue that the story told in The Witches is similarly rule-breaking. After all – and close your eyes at this point if you have yet to encounter it – our hero remains a mouse. At the end of the book there is no magical restoration of his human form. There is no reassertion of the status quo. Instead, the boy lives out his life as a tiny animal, albeit still in the care of his grandmother. ‘The Witches is a love story,’ says Little. ‘It’s about the love between a boy and his grandmother that is capable of surviving everything. But Dahl doesn’t sugarcoat it. A terrible thing happens near the beginning of the book, and there’s no getting round it. What makes Dahl so great is that he understood that children see the darkness of life as much as adults do. There’s no pretending.’  

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today