Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

witch, boy and gran

Julie Bywater with her Grand High Witch happy face, Harry Clee as the boy and Jane Fisher as the grandmother.

The Witches

Dudley Little Theatre

Netherton Arts Centre


A WORD of advice. If you ever find yourself in Bournemouth never eat at the Hotel Magnificent, indeed, to be safe, don’t even enter its portals.

Not only does it entertain witch’s conventions but it is riddled with rodents and the hygiene habits of its staff, who appear to be on day release from a medium secure medical facility, leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps for lot it might be best to read everything.

Led by its lethargic head water, played by Mike Kelly, this is an establishment to keep environmental services in business for years.

The hotel is the setting for much of David Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Dudley Little Theatre’s  alternative to the festive panto, not that you can escape completely with a slick and funny slapstick kitchen scene between two chefs (James Silvers and Ellis Daker) and a mouse that would grace any Cinderella, Dick Whittington or Sleeping Beauty. Oh, yes it would!

Silvers, incidentally, has his work cut out as he also pops up as a lawyer and has a second job as doorman at the hotel.

Dahl’s children’s stories have a dark underbelly and this is no exception; for those unfamiliar with the tale, a boy, we never do find out his name, is living with his grandmother in Norway after his parents are killed in a car crash – Dahl’s parents were Norwegian incidentally.

She tells him of a secret society of witches who hate children, who all smell of fresh dog poo to a witch. The witches look ordinary, which makes them even more dangerous, and their mission is to rid the world of children by turning them all into mice.

Returning to school in England the boy encounters the witches at their council in the hotel which results in . . . too horrible to relate, but just think small and furry, with whiskers.

But the boy, or perhaps more accurately, rodent, and his gran battle back and rid the world of witches . . . at least for now. Just beware of ladies wearing gloves is aon the staircasell I would say – and there are a lot of them about in winter.

Young Harry Clee is impressive as the boy, on stage for much of the play, while Jane Fisher is a suitably grannyish grandmother, offering matter of fact advice on witches, as you would, with just enough of a rebel streak to take on the witch hordes.

Then, as is often the case in Dahl’s world, there is the family from hell, in this case the Jenkins with Mr, played by Andy Rock, a boorish, thug of a man and Mrs, played, at short notice, by director Phil Sheffield, sporting a shapely pair of pins incidentally, who mothers her repulsive son Bruno with a vengeance.

She's behind you! It might not be panto but it is still festive fun at Dudley

Alex Nicklin is another youngster putting in an impressive shift as Bruno whose hobbies seem to be eating, annoying people, eating, insolence, eating, being a real pain and eating.

Bruno is the first victim of the witches, easily trapped by his greed, and to be honest, he is such a repulsive little chap, the witches are welcome to him. Only his equally nauseating parents are likely to miss him.

And as for the witches, the boy’s first encounter is with Claire Hetherington as a passing witch who tries to grab him from a tree house, making the vague threat of grandma’s tale a chilling reality. Then there is the head honcho. Julie Bywater struts her way through the part of the Grand High Witch, she of two heads, guttural accent and a nice line in dealing with dissent – not so much burning questions as burning answers, answers to ashes so to speak. She is clearly enjoying herself with an air of malevolent delight.

Witch Louise Reed risks incineration by asking questions but makes sure she is obsequious enough to survive as the witch's council decide their plan of evil action.

It is not the easiest of plays to stage but, without giving too much of the plot away, Phil Sheffield, on a notable directorial debut, has done a good job in making the witch spells and magic potions work effectively – although Dudley market might well be out of stock of clockwork mice for a while.

Sheffield has also done sterling work, along with Claire Hetherington (in human form) and Jenny Stanley in the costume department with a collection of mouse puppets and 10 extra witches to cater for in an ensemble, all with gloves (the giveaway) and wigs to cover their pustuled bald heads – excellent make up, if you like weeping sores and stuff, by Halesowen College.

There is also the clever use of a video backdrop with DIY guide to spotting a witch, Sheffield again, as a visual aid to gran’s description, a seascape for the sea journey from Norway, and an ingenious running mouse eye view of the world as Bruno and the boy escape to find gran and then the boy steals a magic potion from under a bed and escapes with a frog, don’t ask, played by Katie Wilkinson. Super stuff from Tony Stamp, Max Bywater and Nigel Espley.

Adding to the atmosphere is musical director Ray Curran on keyboard accompanying the play’s songs and, rather like the silent movies, adding mood music and filling in for scene changes, twelve in all which, although done efficiently, still slow things down a bit, so the music helps keep things ticking over.

Dudley has produced a fine, fun alternative to panto, welcoming the festive season with an entertaining and amusing evening paying homage to Dahl's dark fairy tale. To 10-12-16.

Roger Clarke


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