Reviews: The Witches – Dundee Rep; Sleeping Betty – Tron Theatre, Glasgow

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First published in The Times, Monday December 7 2015

The Witches: Three Stars

Sleeping Betty: Three Stars

A Roald Dahl adaptation at Dundee Rep has become as much a staple of the Christmas season as mince pies. This is the third year in a row that the ensemble has staged one of David Wood’s adaptations of the celebrated author’s twisted children’s tales, with a production of George’s Marvellous Medicine already slated for next year.

 

Like George’s potion or the formula developed by the Grand High Witch to turn children into mice, at its best Dahl’s absurdist, somewhat menacing sensibility is a recipe for dark theatrical magic. Jemima Levick’s production of The Witches certainly doesn’t lack pungent set pieces, notably the anarchic hotel dining room sequence, in which the tale’s boy-to-mouse hero (Matthew Forbes) tries to turn the tables on the dastardly coven. The show gains further levity from its use of live music, developed by Gavin Swift and performed live.

Some of the more expositional elements of Dahl’s novel have not transitioned quite so seamlessly to the stage. The opening sequence, in which the boy’s grandmother (a no-nonsense, cigar-smoking Irene Macdougall) explains how to spot a witch, drags on a little too long, while the overall pace is further inhibited by a couple of interminable scenery changes. On the plus side are some delicious performances, including Emily Winter’s scarily glamorous Grand High Witch and Stephen Bangs as the greedy, unloved Bruno Jenkins.

Stephen Bangs and Matthew Forbes in The Witches Dundee Rep Ensemble

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If Wood’s script sticks faithfully to the original novel, including maintaining Dahl’s famously melancholy ending, this year’s pantomime at the Tron is almost unrecognisable from its fairy tale source. Sleeping Betty may be the first at the Glasgow theatre scripted by the playwright David Ireland, but the show, directed and designed by Kenny Miller, upholds the garish colour scheme and knowing, meta-theatrical humour that is the Tron’s trademark.

 

There are some ingenious touches here, including an amusing song delivered by Amy Scott’s narcoleptic Betty, in which she bemoans the lack of decent roles for women in Christmas shows. Overall, though, the story does get buried in a morass of in-jokes and references to Robert de Niro and Norman Tebbit that are likely to sail over the heads of younger viewers. Such weaknesses in the writing are assuaged by the energies of the cast, which includes Darren Brownlie as a gloriously effete prince, Neil Thomas as a wide-boy fairy godfather and Louise McCarthy’s wonderfully conflicted baddie.

 

The Witches runs to Dec 31 (box office: 01382 223530); Sleeping Betty runs to Jan 3 (box office: 0141 552 4267)

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