REVIEW: The Witches, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until January 4.

The Witches       Pic by Mike Eddowes
The Witches Pic by Mike Eddowes

Did we really see a witch reduced to a pile of fluttering ashes live on stage?

Quite possibly. Clearly anything can happen when you combine the remarkable talents of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre with the utterly-bizarre imagination of Roald Dahl, especially when you then wash it all down with a terrific script from former Chichester schoolboy David Wood.

The Witches has always seemed one of the least appealing of Dahl’s books, but the Christmas production from the CFT’s Youth Theatre produces a hugely-enjoyable and marvellously-sinister evening, all rounded off perfectly with a poignant little moment which will last long in the memory.

Two separate casts are alternating performances, and Monday night gave us the red team – and a longing now to see the blue team in action, doubtless their equal every step of the way.

This is the story of Boy (in this production Finn Elliot), a youngster sent to live with his Norwegian Grandmama (Beth Church) after the sudden death of his parents – and yes, we get that live on stage too.

Cooped up together, she tells him that witches aren’t black-begowned broomstick-fliers. No, they are far more sinister – and they’re all around us. In fact, watch out who you mix with as you enter the theatre.

It’s Boy’s fate to stumble on a ghastly plot. Posing as a convention of child-lovers, the gathering witches are in fact are intent on wiping out every child in sight, driven on in their devilry by the Grand High Witch, a superb performance from Emma Read.

Anyone not particularly taken with puppetry might find this a production over-reliant on puppets, but then again, how else could the cast conjure this most bonkers of tales – and they do so with huge flair, just as we’ve come to expect year after year from a youth theatre which always mixes enthusiasm and quality in equal measure.

The puppets are brought to life with immense skill and subtlety as before our eyes Boy leads the charge against the most dastardly of conspiracies.

The look of the witches is terrific; the way they slip from pretence of innocent chit-chat to outright evil and back again is equally so; and the whole thing builds beautifully to pandemonium in Bournemouth of all places. The mounting chaos is ably stoked by Guy Conroy-Smith and Jack Nash as a wonderfully-funny kitchen double-act. Seaside hotels will never seem the same again.

Director Dale Rooks has produced her own little slice of magic as once again the Youth Theatre flies off on the weirdest flight of fantasy. How lucky we are to travel with them.

It’s bizarre and it’s brilliant. And it’s great to have the Youth Theatre back.

Phil Hewitt