Sheffield Lyceum – until 2 February 2019
Reviewed by Lottie Davis-Browne
Long before J. K. Rowling had even thought up the idea of Harry Potter, author Jill Murphy had created her own magical character – Mildred Hubble. At just fifteen years old, Murphy created the character along with the other characters basing them on herself and her friends. “Mildred is based on myself when I had plaits so long I could sit on them!”, states Murphy, “Maud is based on my little best friend, Elizabeth and all the teachers (both nice and nasty!) are based on my school teachers.”
With eight published books (the most recent one being in 2018 – “First Prize for the Worst Witch”) and the first one in 1974, The Worst Witch has been hugely popular for decades. Along with the books there has been a television movie made in 1986, plus several television series (the most recent one still running at series three), so to finally have a stage adaptation is a dream come true for myself, having grown up in the early 80’s obsessed with the books and movie.
This book-to-stage adaptation is cleverly done as a play-within-a-play. In her final year at Cackles Academy for Witches, Mildred (“Millie”) Hubble (Danielle Bird) has written a play based on her years at the “oldest magical school in Britain”. However, as the play will also be shown to “plebs” (as the students call them) or “normal people” to you and I, Miss Cackle (Polly Lister), Miss Hardbroom (Rachel Heaton) states that “the use of magic is strictly forbidden…and cats must be left at home”. “The Worst Witch, by Mildred Hubble” – the play written by and staring Mildred (as herself) is announced as the story starts.
We meet young Mildred dressed in a different uniform to the other three girls – she explains she is from a non- magical family, and that she was due to start at the local City Academy, but on her first day of school whilst waiting for the bus she encountered three young witches awaiting a transportation spell to Cackles Academy. When Mildred mistakenly gets transported with them to Cackles she is given the opportunity to prove her worth and stay at Cackles Academy. It’s not all plain sailing however; she has the snobbish Ethel Hallow (Rosie Abraham) to contend with “witches are BORN, not made!” Ethel snarls when Millie is given the chance to stay on.
The story, and Mildred’s play continues as we meet her best friends Enid (tonight played by Emma Lau) and Maud (Rebecca Killick) along with Tabby – Mildred’s aptly named cat – a clever and effective hand puppet (get your programme to see how you can make your very own puppet cat!) but trouble is looming with the arrival of Miss Cackles evil twin Agatha (watch the hilarious Polly Lister as she is at one point literally split down the middle playing both Agatha and Miss Cackle!).
Act Two was certainly more lively with better special effects than Act One, designer Simon Daw has excelled my expectations of bringing the famous Cackles Academy to life with his spellbinding stage set, the characters look somewhat similar to Murphy’s original drawings (although I felt they’d leaned more towards the current television series characters with their casting, for example Miss Cackle is neither particularly old or plump in this production, however that is just a minor thing as a huge fan of the books that I’d picked up on). Having grown up with the books I always empathised with Mildred Hubble and felt, like Mildred, I didn’t quite fit in – something most young girls feel at some point.
Whilst I was eagerly anticipating Murphy’s books finally being given the stage treatment I was somewhat disappointed with this production. At times it lacked magic (no pun intended), felt painfully slow paced and duller than the dark uniforms of Cackles Academy.
However the young audience – the new generation of Murphy fans – seemed to adore it with the current television series bringing in the fans (admittedly I am somewhat hooked on the current series despite being almost 40 years old!). If this production had come out fifteen or so years ago, I’d probably be raving about it. It’s got potential to be spell binding, full of charm and every bit as enticing as the current series but sadly didn’t quite conjour up enough of the magic that Murphy’s books did for me.