Our verdict on The Worst Witch at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton
Many years before Harry Potter came along, there was a certain trainee witch who cast a spell over young readers everywhere, and her name was Mildred Hubble.
As a primary school child of the '80s I still remember Mildred's magic and how it poured from the pages of The Worst Witch series of books by Jill Murphy.
It has been at least 30 years since I last touched a copy of The Worst Witch, but having the chance to see the play adaptation, which has just started its month-long run at Northampton's Royal and Derngate, was a bit like being reacquainted with an old friend.
The story, which has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Emma Reeves, evolves around Mildred (an ordinary human), who accidentally finds herself at Miss Cackle's Witches' Academy.
Unable to leave, she has to try as hard as possible to fit in and become what she never imagined she could be - a witch. Eventually she plays an important part when the academy is threatened by the return of an old enemy.
From start to finish, this play is absolutely superb on many levels. The action revolves around the two teachers: sticky bun loving and warm-hearted Miss Cackle and her opposite number Miss Hardbroom who is a stickler for the Witches' Code rulebook. Also central are the student witches including snooty Ethel from the illustrious Hallow family, the class clown Enid and Mildred's best friend Maud.
The on-stage chemistry between the actors is brilliant to watch. There are no weak links as they unite to perform some extraordinarily complex scenes, demanding a great deal in terms of physical action, music, dance and comedy.
Each of the show's stars know how to deliver a well-timed witty line, with exactly the right kind of facial expression, to send the audience into fits of giggles. This was particularly evident in Rosie Abraham's portrayal of the snobby Ethel, who conveys so much with just a flick of the head or a raised eyebrow.
Polly Lister was magnificent as Miss Cackle and her evil twin Agatha Cackle, delivering her lines with a zany, slightly wild and witty confidence. She definitely got the biggest laughs of the night when she appeared as both Agatha and Miss Cackle in the same scene. No laughter potions needed at all.
Credit also has to go to Danielle Bird as Mildred and Rebecca Killick as Maud, who perform a truly impressive broomstick flying scene, involving some seriously demanding acrobatic feats.
Written as a 'play within a play', some humour is derived from home made efforts to create on stage magic, for example the use of a scooter when one witch can't succeed in actually flying her broomstick.
But there are also some genuinely clever and visually impressive tricks which must have given the show's technical team some headaches. I won't give these away, but there are quite a few moments which leave the audience thinking: just how did they do that?
Mention also has to go to on-stage musicians Molly-Grace Cutler and Megan Leigh Mason, who are each given extremely funny character parts as teachers, but provide an almost constant flow of background music, working to enhance the drama and mood of the action in an almost cinematic style.
The age recommendation for this play is for children ages seven and upwards. I bravely brought my four-year-old daughter along and, despite a couple of scenes I thought might have been a little frightening for her, she was mesmerised throughout. She has already asked if she can go back and see it again.
I loved this play and would highly recommend it to anyone, young or old, who wants to bring a touch of magic to Christmas.
* The Worst Witch will run in Northampton until Sunday, December 30. For details, see www.royalandderngate.co.uk