Before there was Hogwarts, there was Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It didn’t have an evil house – that would be silly. It did have an evil witch, though, and her name was Ethel Hallow. in the Royal and Derngate’s production she’s played with chilling conviction by Rosie Abraham. Ethel is arrogant, competitive and ruthless. And she is no fan of Mildred Hubble.
Mildred (Danielle Bird) is not a natural witch. Actually, she isn’t a witch at all. She was born to non-magical parents and accidentally ended up at Miss Cackle’s Academy, where witchery – sneers deputy head Miss Hardbroom (Rachel Heaton), requires self-control, discipline and precision. But Mildred has none of these. She’s clumsy and bumbling but she has great potential – and she’s already seen too much, so Miss Cackle allows her to stay.
Emma Reeves’ ambitious adaptation of Jill Murphy’s novel series is supremely matched by every element of director Theresa Heskins’ production. Simon Daw’s design consists of a towering jungle-gym-come-apothecary fitted out with shelves upon shelves of conical flasks and glass tumblers filled with potions in every hue. There’s a cave for Miss Bat’s musician band – architects of Leigh Davies’ thrilling sound design – and Miss Cackle’s green horn-rimmed spectacles perfectly evoke the spirit of the character from the book. Paschale Straiton’s cat puppets are impressively animated and there is a spectacular flying scene.
The play-within-a-play element of the narrative feels like it was put there to justify the action. It feels clunky. Otherwise, this is a practically perfect production with West End potential.