Witch Hunt: 'It’s really about embracing your crone'

In their new touring show, Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards set out to portray witches as feminist icons. Expect subverted fairy tales, surreal visual gags, glorious costumes, bad language and two women of a certain age having a ball, writes Susan Mansfield

It feels like the right kind of interview to be doing at Halloween: talking to two female comedy performers about reclaiming the witch. Because, for Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards, witches are not bad teeth and broomsticks, they are feminist icons.

By the time you read this, the trick-or-treating will be past, but Dooley and Edwards – who work together as A&E Comedy – will be on their way to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh with their show, Witch Hunt. Expect subverted fairy tales, surreal visual gags, glorious costumes, bad language and two women of a certain age having a ball.

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“Our shows have a very serious message,” says Dooley, “but the best way of getting that content across is with humour. We push our humour to a very surreal place. What we’ve been finding on the tour is people have come up and said ‘I haven’t had a belly laugh for so long’. We want people to have a really good night out.”

Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards in Witch Hunt
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The duo performed an earlier version of the show, which is directed by Cal McCrystal, on the Fringe in 2019, and were three dates into a tour in spring 2020 when lockdown began. Returning to Witch Hunt more than two years later, they have reworked it to reflect the present moment.

“When we started making it, it was at a time when the term ‘witch hunt’ was being claimed by people like Trump,” says Edwards. “The predators claimed that they were being witch-hunted, so we wanted to explore the power dynamic in that relationship. It was very much about fake news and the kind of fear-mongering that was happening then. Now, it’s much more of a kind of rallying cry, that we all need to come together in a spirit of joyful dissent. We’re going for an empowered, joyful vibe as an antidote to being in isolation, coping with the world going mad.”

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This makes it sound as if the witches in the show are allegorical. Far from it. “The show starts with us as very typical horror witches,” says Edwards. “And, during the course of the show, that stereotype gets debunked, so by the end we come out as futuristic voodoo creations with a big magic act.

“It’s really about embracing your crone. And we’re not limiting it to women. Everybody’s got that instinct, intuition, inner power, and it’s about expressing that and expressing yourself.”

You can expect to meet some familiar fairy tale characters, though not as you’ve seen them before: a wolf-prince who enters to Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf, and Red Riding Hood as a sex robot. Edwards says: “Fairy tales give you a great shortcut with the audience. If you’re in a wood and you’re wearing red, they know who you are, so you’ve then got a licence to push things further and further because you know you’re on familiar territory.

“We’ve thrown in The Crucible and all sorts of witch iconography, bunged it all in the cauldron and stirred it up into something quite ridiculous.”

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Dooley adds: “We do comment on the patriarchal takeover of fairytales, how all the strong matriachal storylines which were there originally to help younger women were taken out and the older women, instead of being powerful and helpful, were turned into the evil women who had to be pushed back into the forest. There’s a lot of unpacking.

“It’s a political statement just being two women in our fifties turning up on a stage and doing a humourous, edgy piece of work. I hope that’s inspiration to women who are in a similar position to us, not necessarily to do what we do, but to be a bit more adventurous.” Edwards laughs: “You can be ridiculous and stupid at any age!”

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Both women trained at the legendary clown school run by Philippe Gaulier, and worked in touring theatre before taking a break from acting to raise families. They met 11 years ago, discovered a shared interest in comedy writing and started working together. After winning the prestigious Sitcom Mission Competition, their script was optioned by production company Hat Trick, but sadly never made.

They made their first stage show, Enter The Dragons, together in 2017. Dooley says: “A&E comedy came along because we couldn’t get our work put out there and it was getting very frustrating. We knew that we had something very important to say.”

Edwards adds: “We wanted to take power back into our own hands. Rather than sending things off and hoping that someone was going to take a punt on something, we decided to take a punt on ourselves and make a show. We’ve found it joyful coming back to touring at this point in life, we’re not ready to stay at home.”

Above all, they’re passionate about making work which represents women like themselves. Edwards says: “Our friends are funny, bawdy, glamorous, but to see that represented in the media is very rare. It’s changing slowly, but it’s ridiculous that there isn’t an authentic portrayal of women’s experience at this age.”

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Dooley says: “We challenge ourselves in each show, we say: ‘What don’t we see women of our age doing? In this show it’s magic.” They worked with magic duo Morgan and West to learn “some quite complicated tricks”, including recreating one invented by Dooley’s grandfather who was a stage magician.

Edwards cautions: “Some of the magic is also terrible. At the beginning, the tricks start off quite poor, and as you move through the show they get better and better. That’s part of the journey: we go from lame magic, lame witches to…” she pauses, “something awesome.”

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Witch Hunt is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 16 and 17 November, www.traverse.co.uk