The night I was turned into a white mouse*: Griffin’s The Witches

Every child reads Roald Dahl at one point or another at school. Anarchic and more than a little bit brilliant, Dahl’s stories operate in a world where children are victims and heroes, where adults do bad things, and there is danger inside every glance, every smile and every heartbeat, but more than anything else, Dahl’s stories are about the unexpected, and revel in a kind of child-like logic where everything can be something equally different, unique and brilliant. Perennial favourites include Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, my favourite, Danny the Champion of the World. Dahl’s books have also undergone a resurgence in recent years, with several making the transition from the page to stages around the world: Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics for the RSC-produced musical of Matilda; Sam Mendes directed a musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and now The Witches bursts onto Griffin Theatre Company’s tiny Stables theatre just in time for the school holidays.
And what a play it is.

Originally produced at NIDA in 2012 and produced here by Griffin and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatreadaptor David Wood distills Dahl’s two-hundred-page book into a rip-roaring forty-five minutes of pure imagination. Written for one actor, here Guy Edmonds, it sticks rather closely to Dahl’s words and has more than its fair share of Dahl’s anarchy and darkness. Embodying a dozen or so distinct characters, Edmonds has the skill and dexterity of a natural-born clown, the timing of a finely-tuned timepiece, and the glee of a small child in a sweet shop as he cavorts and carves up the stage, in everything from the smallest of mice to the grandmother right through to The Grand High Witch Of All The World in all her wickedly witchy witchiness. Director Lucas Jervies keeps the show tight and controlled, never letting a moment slip by without some Dahlian joke or nod to the audience, while Hugh O’Connor’s simple bare-bones set is everything and everything you need it to be, using a handful of pans, a wooden trunk, a ball of wool and a rough-hewn canvas backdrop. Christopher Page’s lighting is theatrical, almost storybook-like, and is perfectly complemented by Nate Edmondson’s score, near through-composed, every cue and moment with its own gleefully designated sound, from Grand Guignol-esque fanfares to quiet strings, to a crazy carnivalesque tune to ticking clocks, and every moment is timed within an inch of its life, coordinated and unified. But best of all, is the delight on the children’s faces as they see every character come to life, as they laugh and get scared in equal measure, as Dahl’s tale comes to life in front of their eyes.
There’s a moment about halfway through, when The Grand High Witch is holding court, and something interrupts her. SNAP! She looks round and points at an unsuspecting audience member (on this occasion, me), as they are hit with a spotlight. ‘Who said zat? What dares to argue vith me? It vos you, vos it not?’ And she draws back her clawed hand, pointing at them with all the venom in the world; a puff of smoke swirls around their legs and then with a POOF! of light and music, they are – I am – gone, just like that. Turned into a little white mouse.
At every moment, Edmonds has each one of the one-hundred and five people in the audience sitting at his feet, right in the palm of his hand, hanging on every single word, every antic, every malevolent glare and silly stare, every silly walk, and it makes you recall the time you devoured Roald Dahl’s books for the first time, grinning from ear to ear, hanging on every word, because in those books, everything is as extraordinary and as marvellous as you know it can be. For forty-five beautiful minutes, you feel like you’re six years old again, and I don’t know if there’s another play these school holidays that can do that.

Theatre playlist: 60. Dangerous, Bruno Coulais

* I got better.

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