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A CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
Jonathan Church's production uses video projection and puppets, cleverly changing the scale so that we can believe two small boys have been turned into mice by the feared English witches. These witches in floral dresses, gloves and permed wigs are masquerading in a Bournemouth hotel as a convention of matrons and spinsters dedicated to preventing cruelty to children, when their real aim of course is the eradication of children everywhere. The witches are led by the villainous Grand High Witch (Ruby Wax) who underneath her chic little hat has a bald head with suppurating sores true to Quentin Blake's original drawings for Dahl's stories. The boy (Giles Cooper) who lives with his wise but unconventional Norwegian grandmother (Dilys Laye) stumbles into the witches' convention room, is caught and turned into a mouse, as is his greedy, doughnut stuffing friend, Bruno (Keith Saha).
To cope with the demands of weekly touring (this production finishes at the Churchill, Bromley on 26th June) the children are played by adults in short trousers. Giles Cooper switches the short trousers for a mouse costume and the combination of puppets and life size mice costumes allow us to imagine that they are small. Ruby Wax struts and poses as the glamorous witch leaderene with an interesting European accent which she holds for the duration. She is obviously enjoying the part. Her own nose has been built up by make up into one which is very long and curved and her scalp is a trichologist's nightmare. Dilys Laye is very comforting as the confidante Norwegian grandmother who accepts her grandson's rodential persona and offers great advice.
One scene captivates everyone. To a musical accompaniment but otherwise silent, the two boys in mouse costume attempt to climb a huge staircase in what is almost a dance of determination for someone suddenly finding himself a few inches tall in a world designed for giants. This scene is touching, comic and poetic. Bruno's predicament is how to climb the stair and bring with him a large piece of candy, so this scene has everything, adversity, challenges and human frailty. I liked too the chefs in the kitchen who spit in the soup in the time honored tradition of underpaid catering workers.
The sets range from the grand hotel rooms and kitchens to the Norwegian cottage; they are colourful and fun. The costumes too are vibrant; for example, Bruno's father in an emerald green and orange striped suit and the hotel major domo in lavender with gold epaulettes and coat furniture. I liked the use of video so that when the grandmother explains the essential characteristics of witches, we see the projection of one witch's toeless feet, her bald head, her nailless fingers. Special effects enable the children to transpose into mice or the witches to come to a grisly end but don't leave the more sophisticated of us asking how they were done. The final thought is worthy but one which might have made Dahl squirm: the grandmother reminds us that people deserve not to be judged on their appearance. Would that also apply to scrofulous witches with no toes?
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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