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February 13, 2020

Emma Reeves on adapting The Worst Witch for the stage


Emma Reeves is the author of the play adaptation of The Worst Witch, the story of the clumsy Mildred Hubble during her final year at Miss Cackle’s Academy, a school for witches. Find out more about what inspired Emma to adapt Jill Murphy’s classic books into a lively stage production, which is now available to license.

I grew up with Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch books – well, some of them. Only the first three had been published when I was a child, and I read them over and over again. As an adult I was delighted to work with Jill, first on a television adaptation of the books, and then on this new play.

Jill began writing The Worst Witch when she was still one of the few working-class students at a strict and somewhat snobbish Catholic grammar school. She excelled at writing and drawing, but the nuns who ran the school always made her feel that she didn’t really belong. As Jill sought refuge in her imagination, transforming the everyday joys and miseries of childhood into something magical, the nuns who taught and tormented her became Miss Hardbroom and her coven of teacher-witches. Jill’s school friends and rivals were transformed into Maud, Enid and Ethel. And Jill herself – a bright, well-intentioned but unlucky, accident-prone girl with a tendency to daydream – became Mildred Hubble.

Like her creator, Mildred is an outsider who is made to feel that she will never be good enough. Many people feel like that. Especially young people. Especially girls.

There are now eight Worst Witch books. I am sure many of those who read, perform in or watch this play will have read some or all of them. They might also have seen one or more of the television and film adaptations – perhaps even the one I worked on! And so, in creating the stage show, we aimed to do something a little different. Something that would celebrate the unique connection between performers and audience offered by live theatre. We decided to bring the world of Miss Cackle’s Academy into a contemporary theatre, as Mildred and her friends put on a play about life at witching school. A show written by and starring the “worst witch in the whole school” – what can possibly go wrong?

To me, the heart of the Worst Witch series lies in the deep connection between Jill and her material. Mildred’s misadventures are very funny, but there’s also something heartbreaking about an eleven-year-old girl who’s been constantly told that she’s the “worst”. I don’t think the messages we receive about ourselves in childhood can ever be entirely deleted, whether you’re an entitled Ethel or an underdog like Mildred. But the message of The Worst Witch is eternally optimistic. Kindness, loyalty and bravery will be rewarded in the end – as long as you never give up.

I hope this play will send a message of support to the Mildred Hubble in all of us. May we all be inspired and encouraged – and never let anybody tell us we’ll never be good enough.

You can purchase the playscript for The Worst Witch by Emma Reeves, Jill Murphy and Luke Potter online, or why not license your own performance.

This piece was taken from the foreword of The Worst Witch: The Play.